Opponents of a North Carolina law that restricted restroom access for transgender people rallied outside the State Capitol in Raleigh in April 2016. The law has since been repealed.
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina wanted its reputation back.
Worn down by about a year of battles and boycotts, its leaders cut a deal in March to repeal a law that had restricted restroom access for transgender people. But North Carolina is finding that it is easier to plunge into a culture war than it is to leave one behind.
“This isn’t like the Cold War where it came, it went, it was over and people didn’t worry about it anymore,” a longtime Republican strategist, Carter Wrenn, said.
The day-to-day debate, Democrats and Republicans often note, has receded, and the national uproar that buffeted North Carolina beginning in March 2016 has largely abated. Still, a battered and weary state is slogging through a landscape of residual damage that some observers warn will not fade quickly.
The state’s most powerful elected officials just recently sparred, in effect, over the matter of who should be allowed to use which restrooms in publicly owned buildings. The politics of House Bill 2, as the now-repealed law is still commonly known, has also touched mayoral races in Charlotte and Raleigh. States like California and New York have kept their bans on public employees using tax dollars for nonessential trips to North Carolina. And some transgender residents remain so anxious that they time meals to avoid the need to use public restrooms.
“It’s kind of like one of those hangovers you get in college that lasts for a few days,” said Matt Hirschy, the interim executive director of Equality North Carolina, an advocacy group. “Unfortunately for us, it’s going to last for a few years, at least.”
In a state where partisan rancor is a bipartisan pastime, people still marvel at how quickly and broadly H.B. 2, which required people in publicly owned buildings to use the restroom that corresponded with the gender listed on their birth certificate, reshaped perceptions of North Carolina.
The law was championed by Republicans, who argued that it was crucial to public safety and a rebuff to an overreaching city government in Charlotte, and attracted some Democratic support.
Critics organized a staggering backlash to a measure they called intolerant, anachronistic and contrary to generations of political moderation in North Carolina. Some of the nation’s most influential corporations openly attacked the law; the N.C.A.A. said it would stop hosting championship events in this sports-crazed state; and the Justice Department, under President Barack Obama, brought what could have become a momentous civil rights lawsuit.
Lawmakers in North Carolina have repealed a law limiting the use of bathrooms by transgender people, but the governor and lawmakers are still at odds.
About a year after the law took effect, with the potential economic costs projected to run into the billions of dollars, officials struck a deal that transgender rights groups attacked as a “fake repeal” that did not strip away the intent of the measure.
The national outrage ebbed anyway, business groups and convention planners appeared mostly satisfied, and the N.C.A.A. relented.
But, in a signal of how North Carolina has so far been unable to outrun the law’s legacy, political tensions flared again last month when Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, proposed a settlement in related litigation. As part of the deal, Mr. Cooper agreed to declare that “transgender people are not prevented from the use of public facilities in accordance with their gender identity.”
The General Assembly’s leading Republicans, who either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests, swiftly condemned the proposal as “a stunt” that proved that Mr. Cooper “acted in bad faith and lied about wanting to end the focus on H.B. 2.” (A federal judge in Winston-Salem is considering the proposed settlement.)
Indeed, Republicans contend that any lingering discussion about the law and its repercussions is driven only by transgender rights activists, their elected allies and the news media.
“There is no escape because there are certain interest groups that want to keep bringing it up, and the media loves it, too,” said Pat McCrory, the Republican former governor whose support for H.B. 2 contributed to his defeat last November, when Donald J. Trump easily carried North Carolina.
“Most of us, including me, would just as soon move on,” Mr. McCrory added.
Mr. Cooper, who said in March that the repeal legislation “cannot be the only step,” defended his decisions and said, “They set the fire, and I’m working to put it out.”
“I think most North Carolinians believe we are moving in the right direction, but many of them know we still have more work to do,” said Mr. Cooper, whose actions last month were timed for the day before the deadline for proposals for Amazon’s second headquarters. “But I believe that North Carolina is a welcoming place and a great state to do business. We have taken enough important steps to signal to the world that we’re open for business, and it’s pretty clear that businesses are responding in a positive way.”
Wording proposed by Gov. Roy Cooper in a lawsuit settlement has been criticizied by conservative state lawmakers.
Strategists on both sides of the debate agree that voters have tired of talk about H.B. 2, but there is no consensus on how much the law will influence next year’s elections.
“I find it highly unlikely that you will find the national money trying to make North Carolina a cultural battleground state at the legislative level,” said Art Pope, a conservative financier who served in Mr. McCrory’s administration.
A poll conducted by Elon University in April found that about two-thirds of North Carolina’s registered voters thought the state’s reputation had worsened in the year since the law’s approval. Issues like the economy and education now appear most crucial to winning over state voters, but surveys suggest that residents remain irritated over H.B. 2 and the issues that surround it.
“I think the volume has been turned down,” Mr. Hirschy of Equality North Carolina said. “The fervor is still there in our community, and if you ask our opponents, their fervor is still there.”
Perhaps so, to the possible political benefit of both sides. An influential group of religious conservatives recently produced an advertisement complaining that a candidate for mayor of Charlotte “endorsed a radical, national L.G.B.T. agenda allowing men in women’s locker rooms and bathrooms.” The election is Tuesday.
But for many of the state’s transgender residents, estimated at nearly 45,000 by a research institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, H.B. 2’s repercussions do not play out on television screens. They are reflected, transgender people said, in quick decisions about whether to have a second cup of coffee and in choices about how much to share about themselves in conversation.
“Before, whether or not you identified yourself as being transgender to someone was based on whether or not you perceived them as an ally or someone who would be O.K. with it,” said Candis Cox, an activist who is a transgender woman. “Now, what we have is a climate in which you really have a lot of trepidation about trusting people because we have now seen that people can seem to have all of the support in the world for you but have ulterior motives.”
And there is a measured sense that the fury of the H.B. 2 debate could someday be rekindled. On this matter, at least, there is some agreement.
“What we’re seeing is a kind of holding of the breath,” Ms. Cox said. “That’s where we’re at right now because we were dealt this awful blow, and it’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. We don’t know where we are. The people who supported H.B. 2 — the citizens, the politicians — we know that they’re still there.”