On LGBT equality, when will Charlotte get with the game?

North Carolina’s largest metro area still struggling to amend policies, extend benefits

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: October 17, 2009 in Cover Stories

There’s no doubt the LGBT community has seen success in North Carolina. Our achievements aren’t quite as grand as those in New England or elsewhere, but they are steps forward nonetheless. Our progress has largely come in baby steps, as municipalities slowly add sexual orientation and gender-identity to non-discrimination policies and state-level advocates work to ensure safe schools for LGBT students.

The state’s two largest metro areas — Charlotte and the Triangle’s Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill area — are home to large LGBT communities, but they aren’t evenly matched when it comes to local progress on LGBT equality, affirmation and integration of LGBT citizens into the full lives of their communities.

Cheris Hodges, news reporter for Charlotte’s Creative Loafing, recently highlighted some of the advances in Orange County — home to Chapel Hill — in an article for the news weekly, exploring the town’s and county’s outreach to LGBT visitors.

During N.C. Pride weekend, the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau hosted gay travel professionals and media for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s Familiarization Tour of the area.

Among other media outlets from across the country, Q-Notes and Asheville’s Stereotypd were there along with Hodges and Brian Clarey, editor of Greensboro’s YES! Weekly.

“It definitely felt like the Triangle had a better understanding of what the LGBT community was looking for as far as travel and things of that nature,” Hodges told Q-Notes of her experiences chatting with Charlotte and Chapel Hill travel officials. “It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of knowledge in the Queen City about reaching out to gay visitors.

She said Chapel Hill seems to be reaching out because they are truly a welcoming community. In Charlotte, the lure of money seems to be the motivating factor.

For her article, Hodges spoke to David Paisley, a senior project manager for Community Marketing Research, Inc. Paisley’s company is a leader in LGBT consumer and travel research, recently conducting its annual national survey on gay and lesbian consumer interests and spending.

Paisley told Creative Loafing that Charlotte “isn’t on the radar” in national gay and lesbian circles.

“From the West Coast perspective, when we look at North Carolina as a whole, certainly the Research Triangle area has some connection with the gay and lesbian community,” Paisley said.

A large portion of Charlotte’s citizens, Hodges has observed in her close to 10 years here, still find LGBT issues uncomfortable to deal with.

“It is really sad that the largest city in North Carolina and the largest county in North Carolina still has so much animosity toward minorities and gays and lesbians,” she said.

She feels Charlotte’s political climate doesn’t indicate a high level of LGBT support or affirmation.

“Chapel Hill has openly gay elected officials,” she said. “Orange County Commission has an openly gay man. Can you imagine an openly gay man on the Mecklenburg County Commission sitting up there with Bill James? Can you imagine the money that would be fueled into this guy’s opponent from the secret powers-that-be to keep him out of office?”

Chapel Hill’s mayor welcomed LGBT travel professionals and media with open arms at a reception kicking off the tour. The town’s openly gay councilman, Mark Kleinschmidt, was there, too. And, so was Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson. Although she couldn’t make it to the reception, Carrboro Alderwoman Lydia Lavelle spoke the next morning at a panel discussion.

{democracy:39}

It’s all starting to sound good, but Les Geller, a board member of the up-and-coming LGBT Center of Raleigh, said the situation isn’t all roses. Despite its progressiveness the Triangle’s LGBT community still has a long way to go.

“There are so many diverse gay and lesbian groups in the Triangle that don’t seem to know each other exist,” he told Q-Notes. “If they did know, they would be more cooperative and working toward a common goal. That’s what we are trying to achieve with the Community Center.”

But, like Hodges, Geller also said he finds it hard to understand why the state’s largest city isn’t more welcoming to the gay community.

In North Carolina, 13 city and county governments have amended non-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation. Four also include gender-identity or -expression.

Additionally, six county or city governments extend benefits to domestic partners of public employees.

Although Mecklenburg County voted to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy in 2005, it has yet to extend the same protections to transgender employees or offer domestic partner benefits. Despite discussion on the topic for years, the City of Charlotte has yet to move on any progressive, LGBT-inclusive initiatives. The city doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits either, although most of its Uptown corporations do.

Some data courtesy Equality North Carolina
Correction: The City of Boone does have an open lesbian, Janet Pepin, currently serving on the city council. Q-Notes regrets this omission in the graph above and thanks Ms. Pepin for her service to Boone and the State of North Carolina. Also, the City of Greensboro and Durham County also offer domestic partner benefits.

Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, told Q-Notes the area is moving forward.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Roberts said. “The county will be discussing domestic partner benefits probably within the next month.”

In January, the Commission asked its human resources department to investigate the possibility of domestic partner benefit extensions.

“There are a lot of indications that we are moving forward as a community and being inclusive and non-discriminatory,” Roberts said, pointing to the school board’s new anti-bullying policy. “We still have a long way to go, but we are moving forward and the voices of homophobia are getting fewer and farer between. I’m pleased the community is showing that it cares about equality and fairness.”

Yet, the facts remain clear: Charlotte and Mecklenburg County lag behind even some of the smallest cities in the state.

“All these things kind of speak for themselves,” Hodges said.

What will it take for Charlotte to move ahead and join other North Carolina cities and counties in the quest for full equality? Roberts thinks the key will be employment.

She said more progress on these issues will “bode well” for the future workforce.

“We know we need creative and inclusive-minded people,” Roberts said. “The only way we can attract them is to show progress by real action — that we do not discriminate against any race, religion, ethnic origin, age or sexual orientation. My hope is that we will definitely move forward.”

End the embarrassment, get with game: Read Matt Comer’s take on Charlotte in his Editor’s Note.