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LGBT citizens face invisibility in the N.C. legislature: Democrats have the power to change it
Updated: May 4, 2014 at 2:58 pm
For decades, North Carolina Democrats have extolled the virtues of their “progressive” governance. On everything from education and integration to women’s rights, voting rights and LGBT equality, Tar Heel Dems had said they are the leaders — keepers of the New South and visionary standard-bearers of the beacon of southern progressive hope the Old North State had become.
Since their takeover in 2010, the Republican Party’s control of the General Assembly has, no doubt, taken our state a few steps backward on our previously forward trajectory. In the Democratic caucus, however, even if in the minority, a progressive North Carolinian should expect to see the same commitment to principles and values as when the Democrats were in the majority — keeping their eyes fixed upon fairness and equity for the diverse, truly “big tent” constituency that is the North Carolina Democratic Party.
But, come next year, North Carolina’s LGBT citizens might very well find themselves without representation in the General Assembly. It’s nothing short of a tragedy for a state Democratic party that has prided itself on inclusion and diversity. If that happens, Mecklenburg County’s own Democratic leaders and voters will be to blame, failing to see the importance of inclusion and their role in helping make it happen.
North Carolina currently has just one openly LGBT lawmaker, but Guilford County Democratic House Rep. Marcus Brandon will be leaving the legislature at the end of this term. In his place, two options to ensure continued LGBT inclusion came to the fore.
This Tuesday, Senate District 40 candidate Ty Turner’s fate will be determined in a Democratic primary. Voters in District 40 have the opportunity to ensure fair representation for their fellow citizens who are LGBT. But Turner is competing in a crowded primary and his victory is far from certain.
Given this uncertainty, leaders of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party could have exercised their judgment in ensuring at least one open representative for the LGBT voters upon which they partly depend each election cycle.
Openly gay Plaza Midwood businessman Billy Maddalon — a successful entrepreneur, neighborhood leader and respected LGBT community and Democratic Party supporter — was the choice laid in front of Mecklenburg Democrats on Saturday.
Maddalon faced off with three other candidates for the vacant Senate seat left open when former state Sen. Dan Clodfelter resigned to become Charlotte’s mayor. It goes without saying that each of the candidates were qualified. If elected, any of them would have served Senate District 37 with distinction and honor.
But, local Democratic leaders rejected Maddalon, electing Gaston County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Jackson to replace Clodfelter.
No doubt, Jackson will serve the district well and he should be applauded for his passion and willingness to serve the public. Indeed, I look forward to working with Jackson in my role here as this newspaper’s editor.
Yet, with Jackson’s election, LGBT North Carolinians now face an uncertain future with a legislature in which their voices are not represented by even a single person like them.
Maddalon himself explained the importance of having a true seat at the table during a candidates’ forum preceding the May 3 party election.
“Discrimination has to have a face on it,” Maddalon responded to a forum attendee’s question. “Black folk don’t need white folk talking for them when black folk can talk for themselves. Gay people don’t need straight people talking for them when gay people can talk for themselves. Women don’t need men talking for them when women can talk for themselves. Our community can speak for ourselves and when we put a face on it, we do pretty well, because we look just like everybody else and we have the same concerns and the same fears and the same community issues as everybody else.”
He added, “The Republicans would have you believe different, and that’s a value, to have someone at the table to be able to speak to issues from a first-person experience.”
“All other things being equal, if the party had the opportunity to look at the legislature and not see an African-American present or no women present,” Maddalon asked, “all other things being equal, would we exercise our ability and choice to send someone to represent that community?”
And, now we know our answer.
If Turner is not successfully elected in his May 6 primary this week, North Carolina will have no openly LGBT representation in Raleigh. In January 2015, gavels will pound in the North Carolina House and Senate chambers, ushering in a new term in which, for the first time in a decade, no openly LGBT lawmaker is guaranteed a place at the table at which this state’s laws are crafted and approved. That fault will lie exclusively with the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party — the one body which had the opportunity, in this unique moment, to ensure its party’s actions aligned perfectly with their ideals and values and principles, to ensure that hundreds of thousands of LGBT North Carolinians had just even the smallest token of fair representation in a body which, to this day, holds powerful legal sway over the most intimate parts of our lives and persons.
Instead, LGBT North Carolinians might only be represented by proxy — by well-meaning straight allies who, despite all their empathy, will never know what it means to live a single day in the life of an LGBT Tar Heel. Of 170 state legislators not one — not a single voice — will be able to speak with the personal experience and authority that comes with living as an LGBT person in this state as we fight for some of our most desperately-sought-after needs, like protections from discrimination in marriage, employment, housing, healthcare, education and public accommodations. As well-intentioned as these many straight allies most likely are, nothing can replace the substance and sheer first-hand experience that would have come from an LGBT lawmaker.
If we looked at the legislature and saw no black faces, no women, no Latino faces, we would be shocked. We would cry and shout in absolute outrage. We would scream about the multiple miscarriages of justice likely to emanate from a body composed of such astoundingly unimaginable lack of diversity.
Voters in Senate District 40 and the entirety of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party leadership should feel exactly this way right now. Leaders should be scrambling to support Turner and voters should plan on taking to their primary ballots with a sense of urgency and need, casting their ballots for Turner and thereby ensuring North Carolina’s LGBT citizens won’t be kept invisibly silent in our state’s most powerful lawmaking body.
But, I see no proof of a powerful push for Turner. Instead, I see only silence and complacency shrouding a very possible outcome in which LGBT citizens are effectively and completely cut out of state lawmaking — decidedly proving how very, very far the LGBT community must travel before we are truly equal and truly valued in this fast-becoming once-great state.
On Tuesday, Democratic voters have the opportunity to change this — to do what their county party leaders failed to do — and cast their ballots in the interest of their party’s and this state’s greatest of visionary values: that North Carolina remains a beacon for the South, a shining example of a land where all people are given voice and agency to speak on their own behalf and given a truly equal seat at the table of government.
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About the author: Matt Comer is the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or via phone at 704-531-9988, ext. 202. Follow him online at facebook.com/matthew.mh.comer or at twitter.com/themattcomer.