I remember the moment when I really realized for the first time how demoralizing anti-LGBTQ discrimination can feel. My husband James and I had owned a vacation property in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Watauga County near Boone, N.C. — and we loved our time there so much that we set about efforts to build a new home for ourselves. The home would have been in a private community governed under state law by a homeowner’s association’s regulations, but at every turn in the process, we experienced discomfort and hostility. For about a year we tried working with the association, but we felt antigay bias again and again. And since North Carolina lacks statewide nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, we had no legal standing to challenge the homeowners’ association.
James looked at me one day and asked, “Do you want to keep fighting this losing battle?” And I knew that he was right. We put our property up for sale, halted plans on the new construction, and eventually purchased a home in Fort Lauderdale, where we felt welcome and where LGBTQ people are protected locally from discrimination. Our retirement investment and spending, which could have stayed in North Carolina, instead benefited the state of Florida. It was a hard decision: We live in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, where we raised our 21-year-old daughter Emma, who we adopted as an infant from Vietnam. The state has a special place in our heart. But without these protections, Watauga County was a challenging place to be LGBTQ.
The difficulties that LGBTQ folks face are not just an abstract issue or symbolic talking point: Discrimination has profoundly damaging consequences for LGBTQ Americans. One in three LGBTQ folks, according to a 2020 survey, experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools, and in their own neighborhoods — in the previous year. That number rises to three in five when it comes to transgender people alone.
Experiencing this mistreatment felt especially upsetting because James and I have both dedicated our careers to the U.S. military and U.S. government civilian service. I served in the military for a decade, at a time when gay men could not serve openly because of the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was repealed 10 years ago by a bipartisan supermajority in the U.S. Senate. After my service I worked as a procurement contract officer across a broad range of agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and the National Institutes of Health. James was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and a grant officer at NIH, currently assigned to a humanitarian detail near our southern border, working in support of unaccompanied immigrant minors.
It felt particularly frustrating to know that James and I have both served our country and yet the reality is that, as civilians, we can still legally face discrimination in key areas of life. And when we thought about our situation, we understood that so many LGBTQ North Carolinians do not enjoy the economic freedom that we do to shield ourselves from harassment and discrimination.
Luckily, there is now hope that Congress might finally act. For the first time, both Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures that add LGBTQ protections to our nation’s federal civil rights laws. The major disagreement between the two bills involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with America’s religious freedoms.
North Carolina’s U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have an opportunity this year to help find common ground on an issue that enjoys overwhelming support among N.C. residents (66 percent say they want the federal government to get the job done): Ensuring fairness and equality for all Americans. Congress is positioned in the coming months to finally enact LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.
Finding a path to getting that job done is what legislators do when committed to solving problems, and Senators Tillis and Burr can look to the 21 states, including our neighbor Virginia, and hundreds of local communities — including 15 right here in N.C. — with laws that prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination without compromising religious freedoms.
Washington can follow suit, with senators reaching across the aisle to end the divisive pattern that pits religious liberties against LGBTQ rights. Every major civil rights advance — from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the American With Disabilities Act — has achieved the appropriate balance.
Senators Tillis and Burr: My family, and thousands of North Carolinians, are counting on you.
Kyle A. Turner, a military veteran, has dedicated his career to military and U.S. government civilian service and resides in North Carolina with his husband and daughter. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org