Three arrested in gay protest at legislature

Former Democratic Senate candidate, two activists burst onto N.C. House floor following pro-gay rally on Halifax Mall

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: June 4, 2011 in News


Approximately 200 people attended the June 2 “Rally in Raleigh” preceding the arrest of three gay activists in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
Photo Credit: PamsHouseBlend.com

RALEIGH, N.C. – Three gay rights activists, including a former Democratic Senate candidate, were arrested June 2 for their protest on the floor of the North Carolina House of Representatives. The arrests followed a pro-LGBT rally opposing a state constitutional amendment that could ban marriage and other relationship recognition for same-sex couples.

The rally was held on Halifax Mall outside the North Carolina Legislative Building and attracted approximately 200 people. It was sponsored by the North Carolina chapter of GetEqual, a national LGBT direct action group, and Sexuality and Gender Alliance, an Appalachian State University student group.

Two versions of a proposed constitutional amendment are under consideration in the General Assembly. The more stringent Senate version, sponsored by Gaston County Republican James Forrester, would ban both public and private relationship recognition including marriage and domestic partner benefits offered by municipal governments and private companies. The less harsh House version targets only marriage.

After the rally, openly gay Chapel Hill businessman Jim Neal, who lost to current U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in a 2008 Democratic primary, led other activists into the Legislative Building and onto the House floor. The group chanted “Liberty and Justice for All in North Carolina” as they entered the chamber’s doors. Video posted online by PamsHouseBlend.com shows Neal being apprehended by General Assembly police almost immediately. Other activists continued to advance into the chamber. Rally organizer and GetEqual North Carolina chapter founder Angel Chandler, 38, of Black Mountain and Mary Beth Counce, 53, of Asheville were later arrested.

LGBT community leaders’ responses to the House floor protest were varied.

Robin McGehee, GetEqual’s executive director, said the protest served as a call to both President Obama and state lawmakers to stand up for full LGBT equality.

“[W]e’re proud to support LGBT North Carolinians in issuing the same call to their state elected officials,” she said in a statement. “As North Carolina gears up to host the Democratic National Convention next year, we hope that the state will be moving toward fully recognizing the dignity and equality of LGBT North Carolinians, rather than trying to further enshrine discrimination in the state constitution. North Carolina residents deserve better than the legalized discrimination that this bill promises.”

Other LGBT leaders urged caution. Ian Palmquist, executive director of the statewide Equality North Carolina, offered a brief statement via Twitter following the arrests. “While we share the protesters’ passion for equal rights, we cannot condone today’s disruption of the House session,” Palmquist wrote on the social network.

Palmquist told qnotes that the House floor protest could adversely affect his group’s efforts to stave off the amendment’s passage.

“Different tactics are appropriate at different times and the action we saw yesterday invading the House chamber, I think, had a negative impact on our ability to stop a constitutional amendment on marriage this year,” he said in an interview a day after the arrests. “Direct action is a really important strategy and tactic but it needs to be used in smart and strategic ways and unfortunately that’s not what we saw yesterday.”

Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), the state’s only openly gay lawmaker, told qnotes he wasn’t aware at the time that the protesters were from a pro-LGBT group.

“You didn’t even know what they were protesting because it was so disruptive,” he said. “I had no clue until now what they were protesting because it was such a disruption and it’s so scary; the only thing I was thinking about was, ‘Do I need to duck under my seat or what?’”

Brandon said there were more appropriate means for protesters to send a message.

“The rally is a great venue to do it,” he said. “We had a press conference here [during the May 17 rally] and it was a much better way to talk about it, it was a much more powerful way to deal with it. Now that I know that was a gay group, I’m more disappointed.”

Following his arrest, Neal released a letter saying current attempts by lawmakers to write discrimination into the constitution are a threat and intimidation toward LGBT North Carolinians.

“I am no longer willing to passively bear witness to the ghettoization of LGBT people, the poor, the middle class and the weak,” he wrote. “No body and no individual has the rightful dominion to diminish the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our United States of America.”

The three pro-gay arrests came a week after state NAACP president Rev. William Barber and six other demonstrators were arrested in the House for protesting the proposed state budget. The June 2 incident was the third protest at the General Assembly this year, though it was the first on the House floor itself.

House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) later described the protest as “another disruptive and disrespectful display that will not be tolerated in this House.”

The June 2 rally was prompted by an earlier, May 17 rally staged by anti-gay religious leaders from across the state. That event was attended by some 3,500 people and included speakers from a variety of religious groups including Tony Perkins, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. Last year, Perkins’ organization was named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Proponents of the amendments say they are needed to prevent the extension of marriage to same-sex couples, but opponents charge that the language used to construct them is vague and could lead to discrimination and legal uncertainly for both LGBT and heterosexual North Carolinians.

Neither the House nor the Senate have taken up the bills and legislative leaders have indicated they could adjourn as early as June 17. In order to be heard before adjournment, one of the amendments must pass either the House or Senate by June 9. Other lawmakers have said that legislative leadership might bring the legislation up for debate during a September special session on several proposed constitutional amendments. : :