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Mecklenburg County okays employment protection for gay employees
Vote 6-3 in favor; followed party lines

by Connie Vetter and Lainey Millen

CHARLOTTE — “It’s time to say we need to stop discriminating against people because they may be different,” Commissioner Parks Helms announced May 17, as the Mecklenburg County Commission voted to add “sexual orientation” to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

The new policy means Mecklenburg County cannot discriminate in hiring and personnel decisions on the basis of sexual orientation, in addition to race, color, sex, religion, national origin and age.

Democrats who voted for the change, approved on a 6-3 vote, said it was an overdue statement of tolerance. Republican members predicted a backlash at next year’s election. GOP commissioner Bill James said the board’s action offended God.

Democrats said they were voting their consciences and would accept any consequences.

“My instinct, my political instincts, tells me this community supports the board in saying that discrimination based on sexual orientation is wrong,” said Helms, a Democrat.

“They want to say that being a homosexual or lesbian is alright … state law says it’s not,” said James.

Supporters of the resolution filled the room with a sea of blue signs that read “equality for all.”

Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, sided with those supporters.

“Clear and simple, this is an issue about discrimination, fairness and respect and protecting people, valuable employees, from hatred,” she said.

Many supporters of the resolution spoke out about having the same protections as their heterosexual counterparts. Tim O’Brien, a gay man who has worked in both city and county government, was adamant about the presence of discrimination.

“Someone could walk by in the hall and say all kinds of ignorant comments to me and I would have no leg to stand on,” said O’Brien.

He went further to say that he knew many gay and lesbian county employees who would not come out at work for fear of discrimination.

Phil Wells, co-chairperson of the Mecklenburg County Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee, pointed out the unfairness of a discrimination policy that lacked protection of sexual orientation. “It’s legal to discriminate right now in Mecklenburg County,” said Wells. “It’s not right.”

Throughout the evening most of the nine commissioners — Democrat and Republican — made frequent references to their religious faith. While Parks Helms indicated that it was his “strong belief in a Christian faith” that motivated him to bring the resolution before the board, James responded to Helms assertion by calling the Commission Chair an “apostate.”

“I don’t know what Bible Commissioner Helms is reading, but my Bible says homosexuality is wrong.”

Commissioner Wilhelmina Rembert spoke at length — insinuating that James had an “unhealthy fixation” on homsexuality and that perhaps he should “consider counseling for unresolved issues.”

Democratic Commissioner Norman Mitchell responded to the comments by stating that he was “just as much of a Christian” as any of the Republicans on the board. “God will judge me,” said Mitchell. “Not these three.”

GOP Commissioner Dan Bishop said Democrats had put the controversial policy change on the agenda to draw attention from a planned tax increase. He said the policy would not change county practice “one iota.”

Following heated pronouncements from James, in which he referred to the LGBT community as “homos and lesbos” and “surgical drag queens,” an individual in the rotunda screamed at James — demanding that he “shut up.”

“Oh, I got a rise out of you. That’s good,” James responded.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why this new policy is needed,” Helms announced as he moved to vote on the issue.

“This is to say who we are,” he said. “This is what we believe.”

When Helms initially proposed the change, he said he would also favor offering county employees health benefits for same-sex partners. He said he didn’t have the votes to make that change, but believes changing the anti-discrimination policy could pave the way.

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