CHARLOTTE, N.C. — City Council moved one step closer on Monday toward passing new LGBT-inclusive public accommodations and other ordinances, scheduling a final vote on the proposal for their business meeting on Feb. 23, but not after extensive debate and opposition from some members.
Council members were briefed on several proposed amendments to local non-discrimination ordinances at their dinner briefing on Feb. 9. If later adopted, the LGBT-inclusive changes would include an updated public accommodations ordinance, a first for a city in North Carolina.
In a nearly hour-long debate and discussion, Council members heard from City Attorney Bob Hagemann on the proposed changes, which would include adding five new characteristics — marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity — to enumerated lists of protected classes already included in four city ordinances: the public accommodations, Commercial Non-Discrimination, Passenger Vehicle for Hire and Community Relations Committee ordinances.
The move to place the proposed amendments on the Feb. 23 business agenda passed seven to four, with Councilmembers Michael Barnes (D-At Large), Ed Driggs (R-District 7), Greg Phipps (D-District 4) and Kenny Smith (R-District 6) each voting against.
Barnes had also offered an unsuccessful motion to hold a public hearing on Feb. 23, but delay any action until the next business meeting on March 23. Democrat Vi Alexander Lyles, an at large member, had also suggested pushing the issue back to the March 23 agenda, but declined to support Barnes’ motion.
The proposals for the four separate ordinances were originally presented in November. Tonight’s more thorough briefing was requested by Council members at that time.
Transgender inclusion a sticking point
The largest portion of debate Monday centered on the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the proposed public accommodations ordinance.
The four Council members who voted against placing the proposals on the next meeting’s agenda each cited their discomfort or opposition to protections for transgender people, particularly their use of public restrooms.
Councilmembers Barnes and Smith both said they were concerned the new ordinance might endanger his children or wife — alluding to a commonly used scare tactic that transgender people pose a threat to children and women.
“It is the interaction of children in a public bathroom setting where there may be someone, under gender identity or expression, entering the bathroom or exiting the bathroom and the impact that may have — not pedophiles — but, in general, the impact that may have on a child,” Barnes said.
Smith said he had “strong objections” to the provision.
“There are instances in which I’m not comfortable taking my six-year-old daughter into the men’s restroom,” Smith said, saying he sometimes sends his daughter into women’s restrooms unsupervised. “I should have full faith and confidence in who is using that restroom.”
Smith added, “In other areas of the provisions, we as a society have evolved, but the restroom issue causes consternation not just around this dais, but in many in the community.”
Driggs also suggested the law might be abused by predators.
“A lot of people worry you might provide cover for bad actors,” Driggs said, though adding, “This is not directed toward people with legitimate gender identity issues.”
Driggs also suggested the measure could be put to a public referendum.
“One thing that interests me is the notion of what would happen if we put this to a vote, a referendum in Charlotte,” he said. “It concerns me is whatever enlightened position we could arrive is not where the citizens are, then we have an issue and one I think we need to look at harder and one that is a hot button issue is the restroom question.”
Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy at the Human Rights Campaign, who flew in to attend the meeting, was asked to answer some questions by City Attorney Hagemann.
Oakley told Council members that similar ordinances or laws currently exist in 17 states and in 200 local ordinances. Of the nation’s top 20 cities, only Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte lack similar protections. A transgender-inclusive ordinance in Minneapolis was passed in 1979, Oakley added, saying there have been no reported problems there in the 36 years since it was passed.
Oakley also stressed the importance of safety.
“It is sometimes very dangerous for a transgender person,” Oakley said. “The potential threat is that they will be harassed in the bathroom. By passing this ordinance, what you’d be saying is that people should be allowed to use the restroom in peace, that this is a basic human function that people need to be able to do comfortably and safely.”
Staffers at the National Center for Transgender Equality told qnotes much the same thing on Monday, saying they hadn’t heard of a single documented case of harassment or abuse carried out by a transgender person in a public restroom.
Violence or discrimination directed toward transgender people, however, is often reported or visible — even in Charlotte.
Last spring, a transgender student at Central Piedmont Community College was forcefully ejected from the campus after using a restroom corresponding to her gender. (See an archive of those stories here.)
And, on Monday, one Republican leader in Charlotte publicly voiced a call for violence against transgender people, going so far as to suggest police officers might also face violent reprisal if they defended the rights of transgender people.
“If some guy tries to get in the restroom while my wife is in there… God help him,” wrote Richard Rivette, a 2014 candidate for state Senate, in response to a Facebook post by Republican Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James. “She is a sweet soul who is a nurse that cares for everyone. But she is allowed her privacy. You try to take that away and believe me, there will be serious consequences from men who protect their wives and daughters. And I bet most don’t give a rats [sic] ass whether they ‘call the police.’ If the police back up the sick bastards then we will have a problem with the police too.”
Barnes and other opponents said they understood most other provisions of the proposals, but couldn’t bring themselves to support the addition of gender identity to the public accommodations ordinance.
“Nothing you could ever say would me me not want to protect my children,” Barnes said.
‘We need to move forward’
Councilmember Al Austin, one of two openly lesbian or gay members on the body, spoke out forcefully in favor of the proposed ordinance changes.
“If you want to know about discrimination against GLBT people, I have experienced it and it doesn’t feel very good at all because you have no recourse,” Austin said. “We stand today on an opportunity to change that in Charlotte. This ordinance is beyond a bathroom. … I would say to our Council that we need to move forward.”
Updates to the ordinances have been a long time in the making. The possibility of forthcoming changes, particularly to the Commercial Non-Discrimination Ordinance, were originally reported by qnotes in June 2013, when the newspaper also reported that at least $1.1 million in Democratic National Convention-related city contracting funds had gone to companies without LGBT-inclusive protections. At the time, a statewide anti-LGBT advocacy group began contacting city leaders to voice their opposition to potential changes.
The most recent effort to address the ordinance changes began again last July, when advocates started speaking about changes with members of Council.
The last time City Council considered similar protections was in November 1992. It voted down the proposal and hasn’t had a direct, public vote on an LGBT-inclusive measure since. Current Mayor Dan Clodfelter was a Council member during that vote. He voted for the changes then, but took no position on the provisions during debate on Monday. After the agenda vote, Clodfelter suggested that he hoped it would pass.
“I was on the losing side of this issue 22 years ago. … That’s a long time ago,” Clodfelter told Council Monday. “I will say that I do hope to be on the winning side this time.”
Clodfelter had previously said LGBT-inclusive protections were “on city government’s agenda” in his State of the City Address last month.
In an interview with qnotes also last month, Clodfelter also spoke positively on the lengths to which Charlotte has moved to become a more welcoming place since more embarrassing times, like 1997’s debate on the gay-themed “Angels in America” play.
“I think we’ve moved a long, long way,” he said. “I think we’ve moved very far from that time and that day, and I’m glad for it.”
Advocates hopeful for passage
The changes debated on Monday were originally proposed by a local coalition of LGBT groups, including the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), Equality North Carolina, the Charlotte Business Guild, Genderlines, LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County, the ACLU-Charlotte and the Human Rights Campaign. City Councilmembers Patsy Kinsey and LaWana Mayfield also led in the push for the changes, with support from Councilmembers Austin and John Autry.
Coalition leaders said Monday evening they’re hopeful for passage.
“I feel good. There’s nothing that happened tonight that surprised me,” said Scott Bishop, MeckPAC chair.
Bishop did issue some concern, though, pointing to efforts by some Council members to “kick the can further down the road.”
He was also disappointed by the debate on transgender inclusion.
“I think the majority of Council gets it. I just think some on Council are expressing concerns they think constituents might have,” he said. “I think there are a few people who still need education on who transgender people are and they are hearing scare tactics that transgender people will harm children.”
Bishop said the coalition is committed to transgender inclusion — some past non-discrimination efforts, both nationally and in locales across the country, have occasionally excluded transgender protections in exchange for hopeful passage.
“[Transgender inclusion] won’t be stripped out. We won’t move forward without transgender people,” Bishop said.
If passed, Charlotte would become the first city in the state to add LGBT protections to a public accommodations ordinance, though the City of Greensboro recently became the first to add inclusive protections to their local fair housing ordinance. In Charlotte, Council has decided not to take up changes to their housing ordinance, due to complications with the city charter.
No other city in the state offers public accommodations protections to LGBT citizens, though several cities in South Carolina do, including state capital Columbia, Charleston, Folly Beach and Myrtle Beach, along with Richland County.
The state of North Carolina does not currently protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, public accommodations or other areas.
Debate on the LGBT-inclusive changes comes as Council also considers recommendations from a separate task force addressing immigrant concerns. Council is expected to make a final decision on those recommendations, including the creation of a municipal ID card, on Feb. 23, as well.