Monday, April 25, 2016

...about High Point, low points, ethics, opportunity and the ottoman empire.

“This could be our chance to do something important. 
 Don't you see?”
                                 --Tim Rice and Elton John’s Aida 

One thing I really hate: missed opportunities. When an opportunity presents itself, you take it (then figure out how to make it work later). The world of interior design works much like that: we’re all in search of a way to meet a better client, build a bigger brand, connect to a publisher or manufacturer... in short, walk through any open door that will take us somewhere more creative, someplace bigger, and above all, to something more lucrative; to seize any opportunity presented to us. Nothing to me is more disheartening than realizing you were presented with an opportunity and didn’t take it. The missed boat is worse than the worst journey.

On March 23, 2016, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, in a surprise special session lasting just about 12 hours, passed sweeping, crippling anti-LGBT legislation in response to Charlotte’s attempt to create safe space for its Transgender women and men when seeking, of all things, the simple right of rest room access. But McCrory’s House Bill 2 (HB2) didn’t stop there. It also stripped the right to sue for discrimination of ANY kind (regarding both work place and housing) from all of North Carolina’s citizens. It also prevents any city from passing their own pro-LGBT legislation, and it left the decisions about workplace LGBT issues up to local businesses... in a state where the LGBT community has never been held in the highest of regard. It is, after all, the state that gave us Jesse Helms.

North Carolina is also the state that gives us High Point Market, (in its namesake town of High Point), the twice-annual, less-than-a-week home furnishings convention where makers and manufacturers from all over the country set up temporary shop to launch product, throw cocktail parties, write orders, and make connections for future deals. That twice-yearly event, where visitors outpace local hotel capacity and the infrastructure of the town is pressed to it limits, rakes in an estimated $5.4 billion (with a B) dollars for North Carolina.

When word of HB2 broke on social media, many design colleagues connected these two dots, and immediately began using another B word: boycott. And they used it with conviction, fire and fury.

Suddenly, as an industry, we had an opportunity to make change. Real change.

In the fight against HB2, we carried actual weight, with the considerable dollars attached to High Point. Even online articles quickly had headlines reading, “A Furniture Convention Might Be What Stops North Carolina’s Ridiculous anti-LGBT Law.” 

A boycott seemed to me like a real no-brainer, and surely, everyone would be of one collective— and powerful—mindset. We’d tell North Carolina and its conservative governor that these were unacceptable conditions in which to carry out business.

Surely, in an industry where the LGBT community plays a substantial role, usually surrounded by the support of straight allies at cocktail parties, charity events raising money for AIDS and LGBT youth, and now even our own weddings, that immediate consensus would follow.

But that sort of never came.

What did come was a scattering of ideas, of plans and promises to keep HB2 a real part of the conversation in the halls and showrooms of High Point. You know, while we still did business in High Point.

But okay, it was something. In fairness, the creation of HB2 mere weeks before the spring High Point did create a tricky scenario where tickets had already been purchased, rooms rented, showrooms built, deposits left for cater-waiters and cheese platters. It is indeed not easy to turn a battleship on a dime. Yes, North Carolina would lose real money by a boycott. But so would some of our own strongest advocates and colleagues. I get it. 

Even so, I was hoping that this business which I’ve know to be more community than industry, and a giving, compassionate, world-engaged community at that, would, without doubt or hesitation, sit this one out, in the name of a greater good. But consensus didn’t come.

I was, to say the least, shocked, and at times felt incredibly betrayed by an industry into which this out Gay man pours his heart and soul. To me, this was not a matter of commerce. This was a matter of civil liberties. This was a matter of something bigger than us. How could you argue that truth? We had a platform. We had financial clout. We had an obligation. What was there even to argue?

Well, for one, money. 

Launch Pads and Platforms for Change 
I fully understand that people had things, personally and fiscally, at stake at Spring Market... that they had others to answer to, people to employ and more... especially those who launched brand new products this market (many of whom are friends).

But those launches and lectures gave people who themselves have a real stake in the LGBT battle or in the fight for women’s rights (North Carolina also has a pretty atrocious record when it comes to women’s rights, too, by the way) an incredible platform, incredible power, and once again, an incredible and (to this activist-at-heart) enviable opportunity.

When NBA mega-star Charles Barkely spoke out in favor of moving the NBA All-Star game out of Charlotte, he said, “It’s my job, with the position of power that I’m in... to stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves.” Why was it just his job, and not ours?

Although I had no launch to cancel, no reservations to wiggle out of, no one-night deposit to lose, I do have things at stake by being as vocal as I’ve been: my relationships with North Carolina companies like Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams and Bernhardt (both of whom came out with blistering anti-HB2 language and press releases, both of whom also have been incredibly generous donors to me for the past five+ years I've participated in Design on a Dime, a charity fundraiser in support of Housing Works Thrifts Shops), just to name one. Would I love to one day be heading down to High Point to launch a lighting, fabric or rug line, be part of a blogging tour, or speak on a panel? Of course I would. Is my being vocal jeopardizing some of these things? Probably, I’d say. I’d also say I’m totally fine with that, if that’s the reason. 

But for me, personally, I wouldn’t have wanted to have a launch associated with this market. It now seems tainted. Architectural Digest editor in chief Margaret Russell and publisher and chief revenue officer Giulio Capua put it best, when pulling the plug on Architectural Digest’s cocktail party (to put that into perspective, that’s basically the equivalent of Vanity Fair shuttering their Oscar night party) they said: “A celebration no longer feels appropriate given the discriminatory law North Carolina passed.” 

Trans Rights and Transparency... and Fear and Money. 
Our industry likes to use the word “transparency” as a point of pride... we make our spreadsheets and receipts available to clients so there are no clouds of suspicion about our business practices or profits. Yet, in the first round of HB2 reaction and the discussion of a possible boycott, transparency was lacking. Posts about “I’m going to support the good people of North Carolina” also seemed to leave off the fact that people had personal investment in attending: lines launching, talks scheduled, clients to represent, or that their trips are underwritten, comped, or augmented with stipends. I really wished for a little more “I have too much invested to sit this one out.” or “I have to be really careful what I say, publicly.” At least then the cards would be on the table.

I got a refreshingly transparent response from one industry insider when we discussed why people were going to High Point anyhow, or being delicate in their condemnation. “Fear and money,” was the reply. It was one of the first honest answers I’d received. Fear and money.

As far as transparency goes, I’ve been careful to not say I was boycotting High Point, because I never had any plans to go (spring market generally falls the weekend before the set up for Design on a Dime, so I’ve never been able to budget the time or money to attend the Spring Market.)

So to say I’d be boycotting when, technically, I’m wasn’t, would be disingenuous, and misleading. Is it easier, to say I’d hypothetically boycott, that if I were in the shoes of someone launching a line or promoting a book or premiering a product, that I’d walk out on it all... hypothetically? Of course it’s easier. But I’d like to think that when the chips were down, I’d cancel the plans and unpack the bags.

Email statement from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams
Besides a Boycott 
There are other things to do besides boycott, as colleagues have happily proven, lending their own voice and name to apply pressure to professional organizations to come out against the Governor’s discriminatory legislation. Public letters, hashtag movements, shared posts, getting the Human Rights Campaign to join the party, literally, at High Point: all good. Very good.

Others have found ways to create change while still attending High Point Market. No surprise, Mitchell Gold was one (under two umbrellas, his own NC-based Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, and his Faith in America group) and ASID another, joining forces to help create a program aimed at not only providing lip service to equality, but also putting pen to paper in a way the governor could actually see.

And while I couldn’t say I was boycotting literally, I was and will be boycotting virtually. I won’t share, Like, reTweet or comment on anything High Point related during or after, unless it’s about HB2, and then I’ll be using all the social media hashtags (#bloggerstour #HPMKT #DesignAgainstHB2) to make sure the issue of HB2 and the rights its repealed isn’t lost among the Instagrams of cute new settees and party selfies. 

Local Climate 
I heard, at first, a lot about all the “good people of North Carolina” who this would hurt. I have LOTS of friends in the industry who call North Carolina home. Generous, progressive, intelligent people.

But with more conversation, I also heard some other things about the people of North Carolina, specifically as it pertained to our industry. I started to hear more than once how perhaps we needed to be slow and careful because of “conservative companies” and “good old boy networks.” Among other things, it made me wonder why we are doing business, giving the gift of our considerable creativity (and in many cases, our Gay fabulousness) to people who might secretly be voting against us when the curtains close on High Point but open in the voting booth. After all, someone put Governor McCrory into office.

High Point itself, in its early but tepid statement about HB2, actually thanked the state government for past business-favorable legislation, in a pubic proclamation of knowing who was buttering their bread (and it wasn't the first time they thanked legislators for favorable rulings). And in a na├»ve PR misstep, both High Point Market, and the Building Association there, came out with “We’re inclusive, and so are all our bathrooms.” The inclusivity of High Point never was, and still isn’t the issue. And the bill is, and was, bigger than bathrooms, no matter how the conservative right spun it. 

Last In Line 
I’ve watched design colleagues gleefully share and Like stories about other industries and celebs like Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Star boycotting North Carolina, while keeping fairly quiet about our own potential role. Them, sure, but no, not us. It makes me just a little heartsick. Hell, even the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, announced a cancellation of an annual meeting in Charlotte. Librarians. We are in line behind LIBRARIANS.

Are we comfortable letting someone else (and now it seems, everyone else) do the heavy lifting when we have the power to do it ourselves? I’m not.

It seems we have been last in line to say, with our money, with our pockets and pocketbooks, that we refuse to do business in a state where the governor, in twelve hours, can rip away the civil liberties and protections of the LGBT community, minorities and women. And to be last in line, when we had ACTUAL clout, is a humiliating place to be.

Even on our worst days, I’m pretty sure it’s easier to be an interior designer in Manhattan than to be Trans in most places in the Deep South. High Point, and all associated, would all VERY MUCH survive a year of a poorly-attended Market event. With the rates of endangerment of Trans women (especially of color) and higher rates of suicide of LGBT youth, I’m not sure the same could be said of all the citizens of North Carolina affected by HB2.

The world is bigger than our business. 

The Right Side of History 
Why am I so worked up about North Carolina, and not Indiana or Texas or Mississippi or South Carolina or Tennessee, where similar or worse legislation has passed or is on the horizon? Because in those states, the interior design and home furnishings world doesn’t hold the very real financial clout we do in North Carolina. In those states, we don’t have the opportunity.

Why am I saying this all now, when the Spring Market is behind us?

Because while timing allows a bit of a pass on this High Point Spring Market as it pertains to a boycott, there is NO REASON we should not be planning a complete and comprehensive boycott of the Fall Market if HB2 stays in place.

Because, if the legislation is NOT repealed, we have an even bigger opportunity looming this fall: another market where we have AMPLE opportunity to NOT make the reservations, to NOT plan the party, to REALLY put our money where our mouth—and our buttons and hashtags— are. By Fall Market, things need to change. And, as it was pointed out, Fall Market is just prior to the state’s election, where Governor Pat McCrory is up for re-election.

Now THAT sounds like opportunity.  Actually, it sounds more like an obligation.