Beyoncé’s North Carolina Concert Was an Amazing Missed Opportunity
While the controversial "bathroom bill" divides the state, Queen Bey missed a chance to speak for the trans community.
Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at Carter Finley Stadium on Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Daniela Vesco/Parkwood Entertainment)
Something is rotten in North Carolina. At the end of March, the state legislators here called a sneaky special emergency session to enact House Bill 2. The now infamous “bathroom bill” dictates that people must use bathrooms based on the biological sex listed on their birth certificates, raising ugly issues about passing, privacy, privilege, and more. It’s a bill based in fear and willful ignorance.
The past few weeks have felt rotten. The state is hemorrhaging money as companies and conventions decide to take their business elsewhere and as big-name musicians cancel arena shows. Hundreds of jobs promised to the state have vanished, along with much-needed sales tax and other revenue that big events bring. We’ve watched as our bumbling governor Pat McCrory has feebly tried to defend the bill in unfocused (literally) and embarrassing interviews, tanking North Carolina’s reputation along with its economy. Supporters of the bill cite unfounded concerns about the safety of women and children as evidence for the bill’s necessity. In my left-leaning home bubble that covers the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, I’ve seen fiery opposition and inspiring activism that gives me hope that the bill will be repealed. But it’s going to be a long, intense, and costly fight, and we all know it.
In the flurry of concert cancelations from Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Ani DiFranco, Ringo Starr, and more, all done in solidarity to those discriminated against by HB 2, North Carolina waited with bated breath to see if Beyoncé would cancel, too. Even as her Formation Tour production trucks rolled into Raleigh days before the show, we nervously awaited an announcement that the show would not go on. I felt a familiar leap of anxiety in my chest when I logged on to Facebook and saw a “Beyoncé Cancels Formation Tour Performance…” headline, and was relieved to find out that it was in Nashville and had nothing to do with HB 2.
But she didn’t cancel, and instead offered a fantastic spectacle of a show in Raleigh Tuesday night. Tens of thousands of fans of every color and gender screamed and stood in awe of Beyoncé—Queen Bey, Her Royal Flawlessness—as she sang and moved her magnificent body before us. Even when the stadium was temporarily evacuated due to lightning, people still danced defiantly in the rain. Carter-Finley Stadium was an oasis of joy. People cheered and whistled, screamed “YASS!” and stayed on their feet for the whole show. Finally, we had an occasion to celebrate. When we threw our middle fingers up during “Sorry,” it wasn’t just about saying “Boy, bye.” It felt like a collective “fuck you” all of the forces holding each of us back. Had Beyoncé canceled, fans might have burned the stadium to the ground in outrage—and I would’ve helped them, gleefully, because like most twenty-something women, my adoration for Beyoncé has no ceiling.
But as Beyoncé’s hit parade ended around midnight, only one thing was missing. Nowhere in her set did she mention HB 2, or even acknowledge North Carolina’s current crisis. She thanked the fans that waited out the hour-long evacuation—almost all of us returned—but didn’t say a single word about performing in a Southern center of political turmoil. As I left the stadium feeling dizzy on Lemonade, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.
Late last night, while Beyoncé’s show was still in progress, a statement appeared on her website endorsing Equality NC, an organization that’s been leading the fight to repeal HB 2. It’s a brief, even-keeled explanation of ENC’s work, and coolly nudges Beyoncé’s fans learn more about and get involved with ENC. There’s a photo of a “Y’all Means All” Equality NC t-shirt, too. I had expected Beyoncé to say and do nothing in response to HB 2, so the statement came as a mildly pleasant surprise. At least it’s something right? And better late than never, yeah?
But the fact is, it is not enough. Beyoncé’s statement barely even qualifies as Beyoncé’s statement—it’s passive and lukewarm PR fluff that feels like an afterthought, delivered at exactly a time where almost no one was paying attention. Granted, the move is in line with Beyoncé’s tendency not to hammer directly on thorny social issues. She’s never really publicly or officially spoken directly about #BlackLivesMatter, but the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner all appear in the visual album component of Lemonade during “Forward.” Beyoncé held the rapt adoration of a college football stadium full of people for over two hours, and has a hold on national attention in general. She really couldn’t take two minutes to pause her mighty machinations last night and say, “This shit is unacceptable”? This is not the time to be wishy-washy or delicate. We know that it is no longer enough to just not be transphobic, or homophobic, or racist, or misogynistic. We must raise our voices and put our bodies to work against these aggressive evils.
Beyoncé wields a tremendous amount of social power, and we in North Carolina—and the country at large—need her voice in a time when the rights of so many are at stake. In November, Beyoncé drew sharp criticism from some of her fans over a nearly identical situation. Her native Houston defeated legislation that would have enacted anti-discrimination protections, and fans called for her to speak out in support of the bill and her LGBTQ fans. She said nothing in response to the legislation then, and almost nothing on North Carolina now. The statement supporting Equality NC feels like a bare minimum effort, driven by everyone else in Beyoncé’s camp but her.
Beyoncé’s music is so much about personal empowerment, especially on the week-and-a-half-old Lemonade, that it feels like an incredible missed opportunity for her not to have given more direct and active support to North Carolina and its fight against HB 2. She vaguely dedicated “Survivor” to anyone who’s survived illness or other struggles—but what about the trans people whose real day-to-day survival is threatened by bills like HB 2? Beyoncé is a magnificently talented, hardworking woman who’s already got a lot on her plate, but even a small personal action on her part would have made a tremendous difference in getting people to turn their eyes to the state’s current plight.
And all of this brouhaha isn’t just about North Carolina. Our state has become the crucible for what we as a nation will allow to happen to ourselves and our fellow citizens. When Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, announced that he’d donate the proceeds of his Charlotte performance to a local LGBTQ youth organization, he said he saw the show as “an opportunity to invest in the plight of other Americans.” His statement was spot-on. Other acts, including Cyndi Lauper, Dolly Parton, the Mountain Goats, Rhiannon Giddens, and Against Me!’s trangender frontwoman Laura Jane Grace have also expressed that they’ll use their platforms for protest, and in some cases, as fundraising efforts for local organizations. Even bands’ boycotts start a fuss and spark conversation. By not raising a ruckus and doing everything we can to take down this bill, North Carolina demonstrates to other states that they, too, can get away with shady, hate-based legislation that falls on the wrong side of history.
Speaking of which: There’s been another period where discriminatory legislation has been passed in the name of protecting women, and it happened in a time that our grandparents remember. White supremacists scared up specters of rape and used the promise of safeguarding the purity of white womanhood to enact Jim Crow laws. Ladies: As Queen Bey herself says, let’s get in formation. Do not put up with this dirty shit being done in your name. Trans women are subjected to horrifyingly high rates of violence, and we owe it to our fellow women to protect each other. As human beings, we owe it to each other to offer a hand up and a microphone to those who need it. And right now, the trans and genderqueer citizens of North Carolina need it.
Beyoncé and, by natural extension, her Beyhive can be a frighteningly powerful force. After Lemonade dropped, the Beyhive quickly rendered Rachel Roy’s social media channels unusable after they suspected that she was the one with whom Jay Z had cheated on Beyoncé. If that same dedication and ire were put to use toward the legislators and power structures behind awful laws like HB 2, the bill would’ve been repealed yesterday. Why not use that enthusiastic energy for something that actually matters?
When we fail to rally around our trans family in the fight against HB 2, we also fail the state workers who are no longer guaranteed fair recourse when they face any sort of discrimination in their places of employment. The “bathroom bill” also bars state employees from suing their employers. Instead, discrimination issues are to be investigated and mediated by the state’s Human Relations Commission, which falls under the governor’s administrative umbrella. It doesn’t take much stretching to imagine that the state’s current administration might not be inclined to investigate accusations of discrimination as thoroughly as it should.
Beyoncé performed Lemonade’s “Freedom” toward the end of her set, with the crowd, the dancers, and her own self soaked from the evening’s rain. The audience roared along with “I’mma keep runnin’, ‘cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” The moment was tremendous, and reflected Beyoncé’s gift of individual empowerment en masse. But if we quit on each other, too, that’s the way to guarantee that all of us lose.
Allison Hussey is a writer based in Durham, NC. Follow her on Twitter - @allisonhussey