Debate over resolution elicits strong reactions, condemnation of Bill James' anti-gay remarks
The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners listen to community members’ comments on a resolution on equality and tolerance. Commissioner Bill James, far left, is seen with his head down and looking at his computer monitor, a position he kept most of the night though a community member later chastised him for not ever looking at those who had come to speak during public comment.
CHARLOTTE — A resolution proposed by a Democratic member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners and intended as a response to one Republican members’ virulently anti-gay remarks last week passed unanimously on Tuesday evening — surprisingly, with the support of the one member it sought to chastise.
Republican Commissioner Bill James last week caused quite the stir when qnotes first reported on an email exchange between him and other members of the board. In the email, James said, “Homosexuals are sexual predators,” a remark made in response to Chair Jennifer Roberts’ request to send a letter to Charlotte’s Congressional delegation thanking them for their support of a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Though other commissioners, including Democratic Commissioner Harold Cogdell, objected to sending the letter, James’ outspoken, anti-gay remarks elicited strong reactions from both local constituents and the nation. News of James’ comments made it to several nationally-respected political blogs, news wires and even to MSNBC. An online petition at Change.org has collected nearly 22,000 signatures asking the county board to censure James. A separate action by Credo elicited similar responses.
In later comments, James continued to stoke fires of controversy by comparing LGBT people to prostitutes and pedophiles.
The resolution, proposed by Cogdell and approved Tuesday night, read, in part: “…the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners affirms, proclaims and declares its public support for community values that embrace and promote equality, diversity, tolerance and inclusion; and stands united in firm opposition to inflammatory speech that may cause bullying, intimidation, harassment, persecution or discriminatory treatment of any individual because of their race, color, sex, religion or creed, national origin, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, veteran status or disability.”
The unanimous vote marks one of the first times all Republicans on the Mecklenburg County board have voted in favor of a pro-equality statement. Several GOP members also made strong statements condemning James’ remarks.
“Commissioner James does not speak for me,” said Republican Commissioner Neil Cooksey, adding that he thought James’ comments “paint with too broad a brush.”
Cooksey also said that “”All deserve to be treated with dignity,” and that his values were informing his decision to vote in favor of the resolution.
Several other GOP commissioners echoed similar statements. Vice Chair Jim Pendergraph said that while he had his own “personal opinions” on the “homosexual lifestyle” he’d nonetheless support the resolution because it reflected his ideas of the community’s values.
“My support of this resolution is to reiterate that this board shuns intolerance,” he said, adding that he’d received many phone calls from Republicans in James’ District 6 with each “outraged” and asking him to vote for the resolution.
Likewise, GOP Commissioner Karen Bentley also voiced her support for the resolution and said James’ comments were “beyond reproach” and “out of line with my Christian principles.”
Perhaps the most moving comments on the resolution came from Democratic Commissioner Vilma Leake. Last December, James insulted her and her son when, during debate on domestic partner benefits for county employees, James leaned over to Leake and called her son an anti-gay slur. Leake’s son died from AIDS in the 1990s.
Leake stressed the importance of respect, and said James had yet to make neither public apologies to the community nor personal amends for his comments.
During his debate on the resolution, James said homosexuality was “perversity, not diversity,” and cited several laws and court cases he said showed homosexuality to be illegal. He also cited a 1988 study he says showed gay men more likely to molest children. The study, conducted by a Minneapolis-St. Paul medical center, contained less than 300 study participants and in no way connected homosexual men to molestation.
James ultimately supported the resolution, saying it didn’t have anything to do with him and was “immaterial.”
More than two dozen community members spoke both for and against the resolution, though the majority expressed disappointment in James and his comments. Many also urged the board to censure James, a move Cogdell said was hampered by the board’s code of ethics, which limit censure to extreme cases of behavior not speech or perspective.
Only once did the meeting become heated. As James spoke during debate on the resolution a dozen or so audience members stood up and turned their backs toward the dais. Some community members spoke out during and after James’ comments in attempts to challenge his use of the 1988 study.