Bruised not beaten: N.C. gay activists see new roads to equality

Equality NC wants to focus on local equality initiatives following anti-LGBT amendment and legislative losses

by Matt Comer  Editor
Published: November 17, 2012 in News

Equality Conference presenters discuss recent on-campus successes at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which approved this week new options for gender-neutral housing.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Leaders with a statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy and education organization said on on Saturday that they will begin shifting their focus to increase their support of equality initiatives on the local level in North Carolina.

Stuart Campbell, executive director of Equality North Carolina, told a crowd of over 300 attendees at his group’s annual conference at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro that the statewide organization would begin to work on passing employment non-discrimination laws in cities and towns across the state.

“We’re going to have to grow the base,” Campbell said in his morning address, “by creating coalitions and working with folks on the local level with lots of different communities. We’ll be building a movement that will ultimately lead to a statewide effort.”

The move comes after a divisive constitutional amendment battle and November elections handed more control to Republicans.

In May, 61 percent of Tar Heels voted to approve an anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment. The campaigns for and against the amendment racked up millions of dollars in expenditures in a statewide campaign that brought newspaper, radio and television advertising and on-the-ground outreach to both rural and urban parts of the state.

After the election, Equality North Carolina’s prospects for LGBT-inclusive legislation are dimmer. Republicans strengthened their majority in the General Assembly and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was elected the state’s first Republican governor in 20 years.

Campbell said the group will be working to ensure support from new Republican allies.

“Republicans in the legislature need exactly zero votes to pass anything they want,” Campbell said. “If we want to stop anything bad we’re going to have to find some Republicans to work with us. If we can’t find them, we’re going to have to recruit them. We’re going to need to find fair-minded candidates of any party to support us.”

With LGBT advances in the legislature practically dead-on-arrival, the statewide group’s local focus will take the organization to cities small and large. They want to work on local ordinances and policies prohibiting anti-LGBT employment discrimination, domestic partner benefits and other measures will be at the top of their agenda.

“We plan to look at between two and four cities a year and expand on the ground at the local level if the laws are already there or enact them where they are missing,” Campbell said.

Lessons from a southern neighbor

Equality North Carolina’s shift to more local issues mirrors the strategy of other advocacy groups across the South faced with unfriendly legislatures.

Activists in South Carolina faced their own anti-gay amendment in 2006. It passed with 78 percent approval. Advocacy groups have also been long-accustomed to working with Republican lawmakers.

South Carolina Equality’s focus on local equality initiatives has been successful. Several cities and counties there include LGBT protections for public workers and citizens in a variety of employment, housing and public accommodations laws, including state capital Columbia and beach port city Charleston.

Ryan Wilson, executive director of SC Equality, hopes successes on the local level will eventually move statewide legislation.

“In a state where 50, 60 or 70 percent of the state is protected by some of these ordinances,” Wilson said, “then you can go back to the legislature and say, ‘Look, the world has not come to an end. This is what our local communities want.’ Then maybe you can pass a law statewide.”

SC Equality’s local work hasn’t come at the expense of State House lobbying.

“Last year, the safe schools bill went all the way through one of the houses of the State House and was on its way through the second one before it encountered the end of the session,” he said.

Like Equality NC, SC Equality has seen the importance of identifying allies in Republican-led government.

“Definitely, relationships were built with moderate Republicans on things like safe schools,” Wilson said. “There are places where you can find common ground on bullying or workplace discrimination. You have to sort of work beyond the ‘R’ and the ‘D’ designations and start finding folks regardless of party affiliation who will care… They exist. It is just a matter of building those relationships and empowering people from their districts to have a voice.”

Despite recent setbacks, North Carolina activists see a variety of positive accomplishments and outcomes Campbell said his group will use to their advantage.

“We demonstrated that we are a committed community,” Campbell said of the amendment fight. “We came together. We worked really hard.”

The amendment loss “awakened a sleeping giant,” Campbell said. “We turned out over 800,000 people who stood with us. We’re not as alone as it sometimes feels.”

That power will come in handy when it is time to mobilize supporters again, Campbell said. ”We have to find a way to tap into that feeling of fairness and equality our friends and neighbors have and expand upon that.”