Commentary: It's time to cross the next civil rights frontier

Months before Charlotte made national news for its intolerance of homosexuals in 1997, the most bigoted Mecklenburg County commissioners were already laying the groundwork for their assault into people's bedrooms.

It was late 1996, and Republican commissioner Bill James forced a vote on eliminating county funding to any group that provided information about homosexuality and other "crimes against nature."

I caught up with Democratic commissioner Hoyle Martin in the hallway behind the meeting chamber during a break. He called homosexuality "a problem in this society," then dropped this bombshell:

"If I had my way, we'd shove these people off the face of the earth," Martin told me. There is "an aggressive tendency of some (homosexuals) to try to indoctrinate other people, particularly youth, into this lifestyle."

Martin ultimately voted against the measure that night, killing it. But he would be the key swing vote in the infamous 1997 move to defund the Arts & Science Council of $2.5 million in retribution for the Charlotte Repertory Theatre putting on a play with gay themes.

Thirteen years later, Martin's views seem even more antiquated, at least to some of us. But our community and our nation, incredibly, are still hung up on people's sexuality and what they do in their private lives. There are still those who would prefer to shove these people off the face of the earth, those who would rather judge people on their genetic makeup than on the content of their character.

The nation's persistent division on this question was evident again last week. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel that Congress should repeal the twisted "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that has made gay soldiers - regardless of their bravery and heroism - second-class citizens since 1994. Mullen's call ended decades of military brass opposing gays serving openly in the military.

For Mullen, it's simply about doing the right thing. "No matter how I look at the issue," he said, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

The policy was wrong from the start, a compromise based on nothing more than politics. Those political motivations linger. Sen. John McCain is among many who continue to balk at what America's highest-ranking military officer says is best for the military.

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