The State of LGBTs in Charlotte

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com February 03 2011 5:00 PM ET

The Democratic National Committee’s decision Tuesday to have the party’s 2012 national convention in Charlotte is a positive for North Carolina and its largest city. In addition to bringing national and global attention and financial resources to the city and state, Charlotte’s hosting of the convention serves as a unique and rare opportunity for local and national LGBT leaders alike.

In case you aren’t familiar with Charlotte, let me provide a quick introduction. We’re the largest city between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and home to the nation’s largest bank, Bank of America. Our NFL team is the Carolina Panthers, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame recently opened here. Oh, and one last thing: Charlotte is not a friendly place for LGBT people.

Though Charlotte is progressive and accepting in many social and business circles, its political and religious landscapes offer little comfort to LGBT citizens. Democratic candidates and elected officials have never considered LGBT equality anything more than an election year talking point delivered to carefully selected audiences. Locals have only two substantial pieces of pro-LGBT law on which to rely, both of those passed by the county as Democratic city leaders, despite their majority on city council, have continued their decades-old stalling techniques.

“But it’s an election year." "The mayor would veto it." "I just don’t have the support," they said. Year after year, any attempt by LGBT residents at forward movement has been blocked by cold shoulders, dead ends and half-cocked solutions and sound bites to appease and quiet us.

By any measure of comparison — with the three other convention finalist cities, with similarly sized cities in the South, or even with Carolina cities and towns with populations as small as 5,000 — Charlotte fails with regard to LGBT inclusion: City employees lack basic protections against discrimination  on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, employees lack domestic-partner benefits that would enable them to care for their loved ones and children, LGBT people have no significant representation on council or any of its boards, and city agencies like the police department have little to no experience dealing with LGBT people.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James, a dinosaur held over from the days when county officials ended all public arts funding after a local staging of Angels in America, serves as a prime example of the anti-LGBT hostility present here. In December and January he made national news for his comments comparing LGBT people to sexual predators and pedophiles. Though extreme, James’s comments are more than familiar to locals, yet he remains in office year after year, and his commission colleagues did not have the courage to officially address his behavior head-on.

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Charlotte’s LGBT residents exist within a political and religious
culture that at its core is diametrically opposed to their
visibility, dignity, and equality. Because of this, some local LGBT leaders
called on the Democratic National Committee to pass us over for their
convention. I maintain my months-old call to use the convention to
better the lives of LGBT people here.

In September 2012, 35,000
convention delegates will land in Charlotte, along with many activists,
onlookers, and media professionals. Many, indeed a significant portion,
of these thousands of visitors will be LGBT or identify as strong
allies. National LGBT organizations, LGBT party activists, and LGBT
elected officials and their staff, together with Charlotte’s local LGBT
leadership, will have the unique opportunity — both in numbers and
visibility — to engage in a major conversation on equality many
Charlotteans have never had, a discussion that cannot be ignored or
swept under the rug in the face of the national and global media
attention the convention will cast on this city.

In the next two
years, my hope is that local LGBT leaders will begin to reach out to
national organizations, elected officials, Democratic National Committee
members, and party activists in order to build bridges and brainstorm
ways in which we can together improve the lives of LGBT people in
Charlotte; LGBT equality initiatives in the run-up to the convention,
awareness campaigns before and during, media advocacy, town halls, and
forums are all possibilities.

While city officials and businesspeople in Charlotte smile at the millions of dollars the convention will
bring, LGBT Charlotteans keep waiting with bated breath and ask those
same leaders, “What about us? That money doesn’t help us. All we want is
your outspoken support. We want your loyalty in exchange for our
ballots cast for you year after year. Ultimately, we need and expect
your public, on-the-record votes to ensure our equality.”

Those LGBT
people and allies who will attend the Democratic National Convention in
2012 can play a role in ending the political invisibility of Charlotte’s
LGBT citizens. As the date draws near next year, I hope they come to
Charlotte ready to help us take a stand and raise our voices above the
muffling effect of our city’s hostile and malevolent culture. The future
of a city and its LGBT residents depends on it.