Charlotte rejects LGBT-inclusive ordinances after more than five hour public comment and debate
Updated: December 19, 2015 at 4:31 pm
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CONTINUING COVERAGE: On March 2, Charlotte City Council rejected LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. See our full archive of past news updates on the non-discrimination ordinance and follow continuing coverage.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte City Council rejected several proposed LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances, after attempting to approve a compromise that would have exempted restrooms, locker rooms, showers and changing rooms from public accommodations protections.
The 6-5 vote is the second time in two decades that Charlotte has rejected LGBT-inclusive protections. LGBT advocates are condemning the vote.
The failed proposal, amended by Democratic Councilmember Vi Lyles and seconded by openly gay, Democratic Councilmember Al Austin, came after hearing nearly five hours of public comment and Council debate with speakers passionately supporting and opposing the measures, with a great deal of debate and contention focusing on transgender people’s use of restrooms.
Democratic Councilmembers LaWana Mayfield and John Autry opposed Lyles’ motion to amend the ordinances and later cast a final no vote, arguing that they wanted the original fully inclusive proposal. They were joined in voting against the proposal by four members who had expressed their opposition: Democrats Michael Barnes and Greg Phipps and Republicans Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith.
If passed, Charlotte would have become the first city in North Carolina to pass LGBT-inclusive public accommodations and other protections. That would have meant that LGBT people could not be denied service in businesses open to the public, like restaurants, hotels, bars or movie theaters.
Other ordinances proposed for amending — adding marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression — included commercial contracting, passenger vehicles for hire and regulations for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee.
Council has ‘tough’ debate
Smith opposed the ordinances, citing what he believed to be a concerted effort from the “radical left.”
“I don’t think tonight’s vote is about solving a problem,” he said during debate. “It’s about promoting an agenda. If passed, it sends a clear message to the city, that Council has chosen to impose a radical left agenda.”
Smith also accused the ordinances of being pushed by national and local LGBT political action groups, namely the Human Rights Campaign and Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee.
Smith said the ordinances would impose the “political whims of the minority on the majority.”
Democratic Councilmember David Howard said the vote had “been a really hard issue for us all.”
“I’ve been clear from the first time I sat down with representatives from the LGBT community where I was on this issue,” Howard said, noting his discomfort on the bathroom issue.
Opponents of the proposals had focused on transgender people and their use of restrooms. It had quickly become the most contentious part of the non-discrimination measures. Groups like Faith Matters NC, headed by First Baptist Church Pastor Mark Harris, even ran radio ads featuring a female narrator discussing the safety of her children.
Howard also said he was uncomfortable with the harsh rhetoric espoused by both sides of the debate, adding, “I don’t think a true transgender person is who I fear,” Howard said, noting it doesn’t change his other fears.
Austin said tonight’s vote was part of a “new civil rights revolution.” He supported the modified ordinance with “great trepidation,” he said.
“I really hoped we had the political will and the political power to be more progressive,” Austin said. “We thought we had that earlier today and that changed quite a bit.”
Driggs agreed the issue had been a “tough one,” but disagreed that there was any discrimination at play.
“I don’t believe the current status is discriminatory in the proper sense of the word,” he said. “In this case, restrooms have everything to do with gender. This is not an irrelevant criteria here. …. There are material differences between men and women.”
Driggs also brought up his concern on predators, saying it would “lower the bar” for “creeps” to take advantage of children. He cited emails from citizens who told him, “I’m afraid for my kids.”
“That’s not religious extremism,” Driggs said.
Barnes, long unfriendly to LGBT inclusion efforts, said the issue had “come down to a matter of public safety,” also citing bathroom fears.
Democratic Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, the city’s first openly LGBT elected official, said she couldn’t support the amended ordinance proposal.
“I will not and I cannot support an amendment that does not protect all of our citizens,” Mayfield said.
The proposal, Mayfield argued, could have unintended consequences, going so far as allowing a business owner to force all gay people to use a “gays only” restroom.
Mayfield also addressed many of the comments heard during the night’s public comment.
“I have listened to some individuals take the word of God and use it as a weapon,” she said. “My God is bigger than some of the hateful things I have heard this evening. … I don’t believe that all the people who are opposed to this ordinance are bigots, but I do believe it is my responsibility to support protections for all people.”
Autry cited the love for his daughter in his support for the ordinances.
“I didn’t know how she was going to grow up,” he said, recounting the first time he held her as a baby. “She just happened to grow up as a roller derby-loving lesbian. And I love her.”
Democratic Councilmember Patsy Kinsey said she wasn’t completely happy with the amended ordinances, but supported them.
“We just need to move ahead and get something on the books,” Kinsey said. “We didn’t have the votes [for the original proposal]. Sometimes you have to count votes. … I know it’s not everything that everybody wants, but I think we need to move ahead.”
Lyles said she also would have supported the original ordinance, if Council had had the votes to pass it.
LGBT advocates condemn Council action
The Charlotte Non-Discrimination Ordinance Coalition, which led the push for the ordinances, released the following statement after the Council vote:
The Charlotte Non-Discrimination Ordinance Coalition is condemning Charlotte City Council’s decision on Monday to reject amendments to local non-discrimination ordinances. The measures would have added sexual orientation and gender identity, among other characteristics, to already protected classes in four city non-discrimination ordinances. Their action repeats a similar rejection of inclusive non-discrimination protections made by Council in November 1992.
For the second time in our city’s history, Charlotte City Council has shown it does not have the courage or the conviction to stand for fairness and equality. More than two decades ago, Council members shamelessly rejected similar public accommodations protections. In repeating that sad legacy on Monday, Council chose to listen to the divisive, prejudiced rhetoric of out-of-town special interests who have been behind recent attacks on the rights of LGBT people across the state and across the country. They have proven they will stop at nothing to malign and discriminate against LGBT citizens and residents.
These safe and equitable protections have been adopted by 17 states and more than 200 local governments across the country with no ill effect, including in Bessemer City, Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem, and in South Carolina’s Columbia, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
Charlotte’s decision tonight moves the city backward not forward and shows a continued lack of commitment to fair treatment of all its citizens and residents. This coalition will not stop lobbying Council for these changes and will bring them back to city leaders for future consideration. We thank our Council champions and those who voted for the measure, placing equality over discrimination.
The coalition had consisted of Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), Charlotte Business Guild, Clergy for Equality, Equality NC, Human Rights Campaign, LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County, Genderlines, Straight Allies Charlotte, Democracy NC and ACLU of North Carolina.
Public comments passionate
For nearly four hours, citizens spoke to Council on their views regarding the proposals. Most of the 120 signed-up speakers were opposed to the ordinances.
Several high-profile speakers addressed the Council, including NC Values Coalition’s Tami Fitzgerald, Concord-based anti-LGBT theologian Dr. Michael Brown, anti-LGBT street preacher Flip Benham and his son, David Benham.
Each of those opposed hit a variety of talking points — claiming the ordinances would put women and children in danger or violate religious freedoms, among others.
Speakers in favor of the ordinances told Council that the city needed to take a step forward to protect all citizens, residents and visitors.
“Discrimination is alive and well in Charlotte,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, addressing the large pushback from the right. “If discrimination does not exist, why are so many in the vocal minority behind me so intent on fighting?”
Ed Williams, a former editorial page editor for the Charlotte Observer, spoke out in favor of the ordinances.
“Charlotte is a progressive city, but sometimes it needs a little push,” he said.
Andraya Williams, a transgender college student who was harassed using a campus bathroom last year, also spoke. She told a powerful personal story in response to scare tactics used by opponents, linking transgender people to predators.
“I was molested as a child,” she said. “It didn’t happen in a bathroom. It happened by a leader in my church.”
Williams called the scare tactics and prejudices offensive and absurd.
Near the end of the public comment, a transgender woman, who identified herself only as Coco, collapsed after speaking.
Flip Benham laughed and joked about Coco’s gender as she laid on the floor needing medical attention.
After about a five-minute recess, Council began hearing speakers again, with Greg Farmer directly alluding to Benham’s behavior.
“Anytime you see an innocent person fall down and laugh about her gender…your opinions become invalid,” Farmer told Council.
At the end of public comment, Clodfelter commended citizens for their civility during the long night.
“I have heard great passion as we all have tonight,” Clodfelter told the audience. “I know each of you have heard other say things that deeply offend you, but all of you got through it and you got through it in the way I hoped we would, with civility, respect and a willingness to listen.”
Clodfelter added: “You all should be proud. … What happened here in the last four hours — that people who deeply, deeply disagree with one another could come together and have the kind of discussion you just had — that doesn’t happen in a lot of places around world. Cherish it.
Trans teen confronted by activist Flip Benham
During the long public comment, a transgender teenager reported being confronted by anti-LGBT street preacher Flip Benham. The 17-year-old transgender girl’s mother said she had to step in between the confrontation.
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About the author: Matt Comer was the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007, with his tenure ending August 23, 2015.