Gay rights in N.C. face scrutiny as state hosts DNC

The Charlotte ObserverJanuary 3, 2012 

As Charlotte and North Carolina take the national spotlight for this year's Democratic National Convention, one area will get particular scrutiny: the region's climate for gays and lesbians.

September's convention comes on the heels of a statewide ballot question in May, where voters will decide whether a ban on same-sex marriage should be written into North Carolina's constitution.

The timing highlights a possible source of tension come DNC time: Will lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) visitors feel welcome here? And what impressions of Charlotte will they take back with them to the rest of the nation?

"There's the potential that we're going to be greeted to the state with another one of those heinous marriage amendments," said Jerame Davis, interim executive director with the D.C.-based National Stonewall Democrats, a grassroots Democratic gay-rights organization. "That's definitely not putting out the welcome mat to LGBT people coming to the state."

A predicted record number of gay and lesbian delegates will come to a city that recently elected its first openly gay city council member. Yet Charlotte does not have a long-sought city council policy that would extend benefits to domestic partners.

It's a city where big corporations have been nationally recognized for protecting workers regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. It's also a city where the Charlotte Chamber hasn't taken a stance on the same-sex marriage amendment.

Equality advocates in Charlotte say the DNC provides a rare opportunity to frame the nation's impression of Charlotte and the state in regard to where people stand on gay-rights issues. Supporters say it's crucial to the city's economic vitality to be seen as open and welcoming to young adults looking for places to work and live, and businesses with diverse workforces.

Plus, it's the convention where Democrats will renominate President Barack Obama, celebrated by supporters for repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and for signing the Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

"This convention is going to be the most open and accessible convention in history," said Democratic National Convention Committee CEO Steve Kerrigan, who is the first openly gay CEO of the DNCC. "...The LGBT community here in Charlotte was one of the biggest supporters for the city's efforts to land the DNC, and we look forward to welcoming all of our delegates to Charlotte in September."

In Charlotte, leaders have long showcased the city's progressive side, particularly on the business front. The big banks set the tone in the late 1990s by amending workplace policies to state that no employee will be discriminated against because of sexual orientation.

And several major Charlotte-area companies - including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Food Lion parent company Delhaize America - land high marks for workplace equality for gay and lesbian employees on an annual survey by the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.

Some members of North Carolina's business community publicly protested the same-sex marriage ballot question, including more than 70 executives who signed an open letter to lawmakers in a failed bid to get them to halt the effort.

Gov. Bev Perdue said this fall that although she backs traditional marriage between a man and a woman, she opposes the amendment banning same-sex marriage, saying it's bad for business and job creation.

Not everyone buys into the stance that a gay-marriage ban will hurt business.

States with constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman still land talented workers and have thriving businesses, according to The N.C. Values Coalition, a grassroots group campaigning to pass North Carolina's amendment. Examples include Virginia, South Carolina and Texas.

To get the question on the ballot, 10 Democrats in the N.C. House broke party ranks and joined 65 Republicans to let voters decide on the same-sex marriage ban.

Some believe many people throughout Charlotte and North Carolina would rather keep gay and lesbian residents at a distance.

There are "people that wish we weren't here," said Charlotte entrepreneur Wesley Mancini, an internationally known textile designer.

Mancini has spent more than a decade giving the city's gay community a voice, awarding more than $96,000 through a foundation that bears his name to projects that foster inclusion.

Mancini said Charlotte has changed since 2000 when he started his foundation, motivated by Charlotte's "Angels in America" flap in the mid-1990s. Charlotte drew national attention when a group of Mecklenburg commissioners stripped funding from the Arts & Science Council over a local staging of the Broadway play about the country's AIDS crisis.

Still, Charlotte's gay community continues to keep a lower profile compared to other cities, Mancini said.

"I don't think people from other cities would pick up on the fact that we have a gay community here," Mancini said.

"In a lot of ways we have evolved. But in a lot of ways we haven't."

To Krista Tillman, Dean of Hayworth College at Queens University of Charlotte, projecting an inclusive image to the world during convention time is critical to the city's economic future.

This became clear, she said, during a visit with fellow members of the chamber to Seattle, to meet with business leaders. She found that city's business community thriving, with a mix of people from "all backgrounds and leanings."

Tillman, former president of BellSouth Corp.'s N.C. operations (acquired by AT&T in 2007), is now working to get other straight allies to join in work she envisions would be similar to gay-straight alliances on college campuses.

She said it's important for Charlotte to draw millennials - the 18- to 29-year-old crowd now deciding where to live and work. This group tends to value openness and inclusion, she said.

"Do we want millennials to find Charlotte home? Yes. It's an economic development issue to the very core," she said. "If they're not living here, we're dying."

But Tillman said part of the challenge to proving her argument - and winning allies - is data. Many want proof that gay-friendly policies make a difference to a city's economy.

"Is there a compelling economic development argument, for it or against? At this point, we have not seen such," said Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan, explaining why the chamber hasn't taken a position on the issue. "We've looked at other states and haven't found evidence.

The Stonewall Democrats group, which is not part of the Democratic National Committee but tracks gay and lesbian presence at conventions, expects the Charlotte event to draw the highest numbers, according to Davis.

Denver, which held the DNC in 2008, drew 358 LGBT participants that included delegates, alternates, committee members and pages. He expects Charlotte's tally to exceed 400, due in part to Democratic National Committee inclusion programs in the state delegate selection process.

The convention is a chance for group members to meet with elected officials to talk issues and line up support.

Given the expected numbers, the Charlotte convention could have the same feel as Denver, where Davis said "there was a noticeable and tangible LGBT presence" at events.

In Charlotte, there's talk among groups about sponsoring gay-friendly events and parties.

Scott Bishop, a Charlottean on the board of the Human Rights Campaign in North Carolina, says Denver set a new standard, when a lesbian social group and gay-owned venue teamed up to sponsor an LGBT welcoming party that drew 2,000. There's talk about organizing a similar event here, Bishop said.

Jeremy Kennedy is campaign manager with The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, which is organizing a grassroots statewide campaign focused on defeating the amendment.

With plans to open a Charlotte office by the end of January, Kennedy said the group wants to build a lasting movement.

"All eyes are already on North Carolina," Kennedy said, noting the upcoming convention and North Carolina's status as a battleground state, which President Obama won by 14,000 votes in 2008.

"If the amendment goes down," Kennedy said, "...It's going to definitely mark the beginning of the New South in the United States."

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