RALEIGH, N.C. – The name Ian Palmquist was nearly synonymous with North Carolina’s movement for LGBT equality in the decade he worked for the statewide LGBT advocacy and education group Equality North Carolina. His departure in July came right as a Republican-controlled legislature was poised to consider an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment banning recognition of marriage, civil unions and domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples.
Now, after three months of steady and careful stewardship under Interim Executive Director Alex Miller, Equality North Carolina has new, permanent leadership in place. On Oct. 12, the group announced that it had chosen Texas anti-poverty advocate Stuart Campbell as its new chief officer. Campbell officially started work last week, a month after the North Carolina General Assembly approved the amendment’s placement on the May 2012 primary ballot.
Campbell spoke with qnotes three days after starting work, in his first interview with North Carolina press. Fresh on the job and living in an apartment in Raleigh until he can fully move his partner and belongings from Austin, Texas, Campbell said he’d received a warm and embracing welcome.
“The staff here is terrific and the board of directors has been very welcoming,” Campbell said. “People really couldn’t have been nicer and more welcoming. It’s great to meet so many volunteers coming through the office.”
Life shaped by justice, politics
Born in Fairfax, Va., Campbell’s early life was shaped by his father’s career. He lived in four different countries as a child, following his father in his career with the U.S. Foreign Service.
“I had an opportunity be exposed to a lot of difference cultures,” Campbell said. “It really shaped my outlook on life.”
When his father retired, the family settled down in California. There, Campbell volunteered for local political campaigns. He continued stoking his interest for public affairs while attending George Washington University.
“It’s quite an interesting school,” Campbell said. “Being in the heart of D.C. it’s a very politicized university. Very big on politics – even the elections for student body president and vice president. It almost seemed like a lot of people were doing campaigns in training.”
As an undergraduate, Campbell was involved with the campus’ College Democrats and Lesbian and Gay Alliance.
“It’s where, I guess you could say, I cut my teeth on the LGBT political world,” he said.
Campbell stayed in the nation’s capital after his graduation. He worked as a lobbyist for a disability rights organization and other groups, eventually landing a gig as executive director of the anti-poverty Coalition on Human Needs.
Campbell’s work on homelessness, anti-poverty and social justice issues was inspired by his childhood in nations where poverty and social injustice were sometimes the norm, he said.
“I’ve always had a strong streak personally of being an advocate of folks who are less fortunate than I,” he said.
While in D.C., Campbell also became active in local and national LGBT politics. He founded a social group for gay men and lesbians in their 20s and served on as the youth representative on the then-named Human Rights Campaign Fund board of directors.
But after nearly 15 years of inside-the-beltway politicking, Campbell said he grew weary.
“The folks in charge of the political institutions – the White House, Congresss – were not very supportive of the issues I cared about,” he recounted. “Quite frankly, I was a little burned out. I had spent the last almost 15 years of my life advocating on behalf of vulnerable populations and as time went by it became increasingly more difficult to address those needs on a national level.”
Time for a change
Campbell and his partner decided it was time for a change. In 2003, they moved to Austin, Texas. Though he remained active in the LGBT community and took up a position on the Equality Texas Board of Directors, Campbell took what he says was a much-needed break from regular public policy work. He ironed out a living as a real estate broker up until the economic collapse in 2008. As it became harder to make a living, his partner pushed him to find new work. Campbell soon found himself working with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
“I was fortunate that the Texas Department of Housing had a position open that was really up my alley – a position dealing with issues I’d long been interested in,” Campbell said. “It was a great opportunity for me to work on anti-poverty issues at a different level.”
Campbell says his time working for Texas went by smoothly. Like any state employee, his work with Texas state representatives and senators was limited to an advisory role. Political battles were rare, if non-existent. Nonetheless, Campbell says, Texas was a very conservative place.
“It doesn’t look like that’s going to be changing, at least in the next several years,” Campbell said jokingly.
North Carolina’s opportunities, challenges
Campbell move to North Carolina has provided him with a glance at a southern community unlike any other. He says he’s been astonished at the level of progressive coalition-building around issues of equality and sexuality. The upcoming ballot initiative on the state’s anti-LGBT amendment will differ greatly from the one he and other Equality Texas board members faced in 2005.
“I think there are some very clear differences between the campaign in 2005 [in Texas] and the one we’re facing now,” Campbell asserted. “One, it’s six years later and across the country we’re seeing poll after poll showing there is a shift among American people on how they feel about the gay community, about gays and lesbians serving in the military, gay marriage and civil unions.”
Campbell also believes North Carolina’s political climate offers his group a chance to defeat the amendment.
“I think there is a very real chance we have to actually win this fight. The landscape in Texas was much more conservative and we didn’t have the broad coalition that I’ve already seen coming to the table here in North Carolina,” Campbell observed. “Business leaders, civil rights leaders, faith leaders and communities of color – they are all coming and joining us and reaching out to us.”
At the same time, Campbell is open to facing challenges where he sees them. Foremost on his list of obstacles is education.
“There is a lot of misinformation about what this amendment does or doesn’t do,” he said. “A lot of people think it will create gay marriage and some people think it will stop only gay marriage. In reality, it does so much more.”
Legal scholars, including some legislators and professors Maxine Eichner and Holning Lau of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law, have repeatedly warned about the potential, unintended consequences of the anti-LGBT amendment. They have argued its broad, untested language would ban domestic partner benefits for public employees and could impact child custody and visitation, wills, trusts and domestic violence laws.
“I think it is important not only for our community but the community as a whole in North Carolina to realize the extent of harm this amendment could do if it is not defeated on May 8,” Campbell said.
Anti-amendment campaign to roll out
Frustrations have mounted across the state in the apparent lack of a statewide and unified campaign organization and message. Campbell and Equality North Carolina Communications Director Jen Jones are assuring supporters that plans are actively being made.
“A lot is happening,” Campbell stressed. “I’ve already been very involved with a lot of different folks talking about the organization and messaging and the resources we’re going to need from state and national partners.”
He added, “I can certainly understand the frustration, but we wanted to make sure that when we rolled out the campaign that we did it right and that it was not something thrown together haphazardly or quickly. This is a major fight, but it is winnable and we want to make sure it is done the right way.”
The most time-consuming component of the nascent anti-amendment campaign has been working to gain the support and cooperation of allied groups and leaders.
“That coalition building takes a little bit of time,” Jones cautioned.
For Campbell, the coalition nature of the campaign will be the key to defeating the anti-LGBT amendment. North Carolina’s progressive, fair-minded political atmosphere will pay off.
“North Carolina has a strong progressive streak running through it and I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was the last southern state that didn’t have a gay marriage amendment in their constitution,” he said. “I have learned very quickly that most people here have tenets of fairness and want to make sure we do the right think. I think if we are successful in getting the message out about what this amendment will really do, then we will see a lot of folks, even people who are not traditional allies, come out and vote against the amendment on May 8.”
Campbell said that the anti-amendment campaign will have its official roll-out during the Equality North Carolina Conference and Gala next weekend.
“That’s where you’ll see a lot of different folks coming out and talking about what the message will be,” he said.
The conference will take place during the day on Saturday, Nov. 12, on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. The evening gala will occur in downtown Greensboro’s Empire Room.
Campbell is well aware of the challenges ahead. He’s also hopeful that Tar Heels will live up to their level-headed, forward-thinking reputation.
“North Carolina really has an opportunity to make history here,” he said. “Voting against the amendment on May 8 will show the country that North Carolina not only rejects such divisive and discriminatory measures but that they are willing to take the lead in turning the tide toward equality for all the citizens of this state.” : :
info: Learn more about Equality North Carolina and their upcoming conference and gala at equalitync.org.