When the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
Elena Gerstmann (pictured), American Society of Mechanical Engineers
began planning an upcoming confab on power and energy, there was nothing to suggest it would be different from other meetings on the nonprofit group's calendar. This is, after all, an organization engaged in the science and engineering fields, where the hottest topic on the agenda might be a seminar on thermodynamics.
But this spring the group suddenly found itself dealing with heat of a different sort: The power meeting, expected to draw 2,000 attendees from June 26 to 30, was just one of three upcoming ASME events set for the city of Charlotte in North Carolina, a state that suddenly became the new ground zero in the furor over a wave of legislation widely perceived as discriminatory to the nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.
This latest flash point erupted in late March, after North Carolina's state legislature passed HB2, a law that requires people to use the public restrooms that correspond to the gender of their birth, not their gender identity, and bans local jurisdictions from enacting ordinances to protect the rights of LGBT citizens. As with similar laws proposed or enacted elsewhere, the raison d'•tre for the measure ostensibly was to preserve the religious liberties of those who feel LGBT lifestyles are sinful and might thus not wish to serve such people as customers in business situations.
"We started getting email messages to our conference staff, asking if we were still going to have the meetings," says Elena Gerstmann, deputy of executive operations for the New York City-based ASME. "They were not only asking if we were going to keep the meeting venue, but if we were going to take a public stance on it. We were definitely aware that some people were feeling uncomfortable about going to North Carolina."
Not long after Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2 into law, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit claiming the legislation represents illegal discrimination. At press time, the law was still in effect. The legal wrangling doesn't stop there: North Carolina has sued the federal government, accusing it of "overreach" into what it claims should be a matter for the states to resolve.
For ASME, a decision loomed: hold the meeting as planned, or follow the lead of numerous other high-profile groups, including the National Basketball Association, that are reconsidering events in the state, or performers like Bruce Springsteen and •Ringo Starr, who canceled concerts there in protest.
It's a decision many other groups are wrestling with, and not only regarding gatherings in North Carolina. Along the way, new provisions are being written into contracts and industry policies are being forged to address how controversial legislation should be handled in the meetings and events business.