In North Carolina, College Athletes Took A Real Stand Against HB2

Not all who oppose the controversial "bathroom bill" take action, but a driven few are hitting the streets.

When details of North Carolina's House Bill 2 became public, plenty of people were outraged. Some, though, took action to oppose it.

HB2, commonly known as the bathroom bill, has much broader implications than where transgender people are going to pee. While the bill did include the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, requiring any person in North Carolina to use public restrooms according to their assigned sex at birth, it also included language that makes it impossible for a North Carolina worker to sue under a state anti-discrimination law.

In other words, if you are fired from a job in North Carolina because of your race, gender, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation, you can no longer sue the state of North Carolina. Instead, you have to go through the federal system, where access for such lawsuits is much harder to find and businesses are generally at an advantage thanks to more complex legislation. Of course, such a law also lifts the burden of lawsuits the North Carolina government would get for unjust firings. 

As a response to the language included in HB2, groups of activists against the bathroom bill— which included politicians and major CEO's from companies all over the country — have uprooted their businesses, pulled funding, or banned travel related to North Carolina. Even the Federal government has sued the state and threatened to pull public funding for schools.

And on Memorial Day weekend, those activists were joined by a lesser known group of college athletes who traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina for the ultimate frisbee National Championships. 

A group of players from the University of Pittsburgh show off their support for the LGBT community.
A group of players from the University of Pittsburgh show off their support for the LGBT community. Photo by William Brotman for UltiPhotos

Ultimate frisbee — a sport founded on a self-officiation honor system known as "Spirit of the Game" — is full of members of the LGBT community, particularly in the women's divisions. So when the bathroom bill was thrust into the spotlight, many of the sport's best athletes who knew the Division I College National Championships were being held in North Carolina had a tough decision to make. Do you opt out of playing? Do you go and protest? Do you stay silent on the issue?

"There are players on our team who are directly affected by legislations such as HB2, there are players within the ultimate community who have been directly affected by many forms of discrimination, and there are amazing allies that fight at our side," University of Washington's Addyson Frattura — who identifies as queer — told A Plus. "We find it crucial that our community, which prides itself on creating inclusive spaces for all identities, responds to such hateful discrimination as HB2."

When Frattura and her teammates discussed taking a stand, she was pleased to learn that each and every player was on board with the idea.

Together, the Washington Element team decided to create video testimonials on why HB2 should be repealed, created a massive roll of toilet paper for teams to sign and express their feelings about the bill, posted signs in the bathroom at national championships that read "discrimination is shitty… pee freely. All genders and sexualities welcome here," and perhaps most importantly: hit the streets to canvass.

A men's player writes words of support on a whiteboard.
A men's player writes words of support on a whiteboard. Photo by Tori Klug for UltiPhotos

In their endeavors, the Washington women were joined by players from both the men's and women's division, but got major help from the ladies of University of Michigan, Western Washington, and the University of Pittsburgh. 

"I was initially a little nervous that raising this issue may create some tension or uncomfortable feelings within the team," University of Michigan's Grace Denney said. "Michigan is a large state university in the Midwest, and Flywheel is definitely full of people with varied religious and social backgrounds, so it was exciting to see pretty unanimous support."

University of Michigan ladies pose in front of "Batman is for justice, so is Flywheel" sign.
University of Michigan ladies pose in front of "Batman is for justice, so is Flywheel" sign. Photo by Kevin Leclaire for UltiPhotos

That support extended beyond just the participating teams. At the tournament in North Carolina, rainbow colored headbands and wristbands were visible in every direction, and even the tournament logo on the Frisbees was switched over to a rainbow assortment before play began. 

But it was the players who took a stand outside of the field of play that really had life-changing experiences. Led by the University of Washington, 26 athletes participated in a canvassing effort around Raleigh, going door-to-door and informing North Carolinians about the cons of HB2. One of the driving forces behind that canvassing effort was University of Washington head coach Kyle Weisbrod, who helped connect his players to an old friend that was involved in efforts to kill HB2.

"The team decided we could have a bigger impact on what was going on by taking action," Weisbrod said. "We could meet our own values on the team and our competitive goals by going to North Carolina and I think that felt like a really positive decision for everybody."

For Weisbrod and the participating athletes, seeing voters in person and hearing their positions was a different experience from simply reading about the bill or protesting amongst their own groups. On his canvassing trip, he spoke with 16 people and got 10 to sign a postcard to a local legislator as a sign of support for overturning HB2.

Washington coach Kyle Weisbrod prepares to canvass with Western Washington player Annie Paden.
Washington coach Kyle Weisbrod prepares to canvass with Western Washington player Annie Paden. Photo by Brian Canniff for UltiPhotos

Frattura told a story about encountering a voter that made his position rather simple: "I think men should use the men's room and women should use the women's room."

Despite her initial apprehensions, she decided to push forward in explaining why repealing HB2 was important. With a script from the organizers of the canvassing organization and a small amount of data about the voters, Frattura was able to break down the broader implications of the bill: that it took away the rights of North Carolinians to go to state court for discrimination based on race, gender, class, sexuality and religion, that hundreds of companies and CEOs were pulling their business from North Carolina, and that the public school system would take an even bigger economic burden if the federal government pulled their money over the discriminatory bill. 

"After our conversation, he signed the post card to repeal HB2," Frattura said. "One of the biggest things we came away with was that ignorance can breed hate, while education can breed justice."

Denney said her team decided to get involved after reading an article Weisbrod wrote for the Frisbee news site Ultiworld. Describing her experience canvassing as "amazing," Denney said she left feeling like most people are genuinely kind and understanding, but just don't understand the full scope of the HB2 law. There were also a couple surprises. 

"We ended up meeting with a lot of older people who were very enthusiastic about talking with us, and eager to support HB2 repeal, which was a little unexpected," Denney told A Plus.

Like many of the athletes I spoke to, Jacqueline Lombard — a University of Pittsburgh student who also identifies as queer — found pride in how her community of athletes responded to the HB2 bill. Though Lombard didn't get a chance to canvass, she did participate in a phone banking push and she helped distribute rainbow-colored gear for her teammates to wear during play. But for her, it was seeing a group of competitors, many of whom were there after a culmination of months or years of practice, take the time to include a moral obligation in their weekend.

"Everyone is there on a mission to win nationals or to compete at nationals, and the goal is usually not to make a political statement about discriminatory laws in a state that's not your home state," Lombard said. "For people to have taken the time out and be willing to participate and take pictures and make statements is amazing."

Most of the players who participated in the protests acknowledged a simple fact: that the ultimate frisbee community was not going to able to snap their fingers and repeal HB2. What was important to them, though, was that they didn't stay silent. They didn't let their fellow LGBT teammates, family members and friends go unrepresented. 

But for a precious few of those athletes, they weren't standing up for teammates or family members or friends or even the LGBT community as a whole; they were standing up for themselves. 

"I am a queer woman from the Midwest; the ultimate community has been one of very few spaces in which I can authentically be who I am without fear of harm or discrimination," Frattura said. "As athletes, we do not stay silent on the field; why would we stay silent in situations of injustice?"

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated a team that participated in canvassing efforts as UC Berkely; the participating team was Western Washington.

Cover photo: Paul Rutheford