InFocus Charlotte: Trudging along — Charlotte’s path to LGBT equality

More than a decade of local advocacy is shaping new LGBT-inclusive political culture as city leaders move to protect LGBT workers, offer benefits to employees’ partners

When Democrats from across the country come to Charlotte this September, they will experience a city that is increasingly moving in the right direction on matters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. After years of stalled progress, the city now protects employees on the basis of sexual orientation. In June, the council included domestic partner benefits in their 2012-2013 budget.

These inclusive changes might seem like small potatoes to some. Arguably, they are. When other states are debating and approving same-sex marriage and the nation is ending its anti-gay military policies, one might think a city as large as Charlotte would have already protected its LGBT public employees. Yet, the City of Charlotte has reliably taken its own unique path to progressive change throughout its history, matters of queer equality not excluded.

Progress has come easier at the county level. Mecklenburg County commissioners added “sexual orientation” to their non-discrimination policy in 2005. They adopted domestic partner benefits in 2009. In 2008, the county-wide Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools adopted a fully-LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy a full year before the state School Violence Prevention Act mandated similar policies for school systems statewide.

While county leaders forged ahead, Charlotte remained dutifully obstinate. Democrats held a majority on council, but they consistently faced a veto threat from former Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, rarely a friend to Charlotte’s LGBT citizens.

Since McCrory’s departure just three years ago, Charlotte has become more comfortable with the LGBT community, making more inclusive changes under Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx than any other mayor in the city’s history. There’s a variety of explanations behind the slow movement toward legall equality here. Ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 different responses — many as equally valid as the other. Two facts are immediately clear: The affirming political environment today is relatively new and years of dedicated and tireless advocacy work has made it possible.

In the early 2000s, local attorney Connie Vetter and others with the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), established in 1998, attempted to have non-discrimination policy changes and domestic partner benefits adopted by city council. Meetings, press conferences, a study group and competing legal memos abounded, but the requested changes never materialized.

“The city manager wasn’t completely behind it,” Vetter says of former manager Pam Syfert. “The argument was that [domestic partner benefits] are useful to retain and attract employees. My sense was that she felt Charlotte was doing okay without it.”

The lack of substantial LGBT employee interaction was another concern.

“I also recall hearing at the time that there wasn’t any feedback coming from city employees that they wanted domestic partner benefits,” she says. “Of course people wouldn’t speak out either because they may not have known it was possible or because of fear of outing themselves and losing their jobs.”

Tom Warshaur has worked for the city since 1990. Today, he’s a manager in the city’s neighborhood and business services division, but he began in the city’s economic development unit, where he worked at the time of the original domestic partner benefits discussion. He was among those invited to participate in the study group, tasked to research industry standards, legal questions, analyze costs and other matters. The committee included participants from other city departments like human resources and staff from large Charlotte companies like Duke Energy, Bank of America and Wachovia.

“That study committee helped people realize it wasn’t hard to do this, that it is not a hard thing or a costly thing for a large employer to offer these benefits to their workforce,” Warshaur says.

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But, the study group never issued a recommendation.

“Other organizations felt it was inappropriate to recommend to another organization what they should or should not do,” Warshaur recounts. “Of course, that was disappointing to me.”

After the study group completed its task, the domestic partner discussion faded. The city, Warshaur says, just wasn’t ready. A revision to human resources policies was not the difficult part — waiting on a change in people and their heats and minds was.

“What required changing was the people realizing that changes were happening in society and that [offering the benefits] was just the right thing to do,” he says. “That took some time for people to realize what they really wanted as a municipality was to make sure they were treating all their employees fairly.”

A change in culture and attitude, says Vetter, was also required of the city’s LGBT community. Activists’ conversations with city leaders and others always went smoothly, but only because, “with the wisdom of hindsight,” she says, “our expectations were low.”

“One of the things I’m happy to see now is how much more we respect ourselves as a community,” says Vetter. “I think we still have work to do today, but we expect to be treated fairly and equally rather than kind of asking ‘please.’ There’s a different mindset. We’ve grown up as a community and have started demanding instead of asking.”

As the LGBT community grew up, so did its elected officials. Groups like MeckPAC and individual citizens continued their relationship-building with city council members. Comfort with LGBT issues grew tremendously. Inclusive and progressive change became increasingly possible.

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Flash forward to 2009 when then-Councilman Foxx was running for mayor. In candidate interviews with MeckPAC, he threw his support behind protecting employees on the basis of sexual orientation. As mayor-elect, Foxx made the same commitment publicly in a post-election interview with qnotes.

Despite the public support from Foxx, the non-discrimination matter would never come to a full vote of council. Advocates at the time were unsure if they had the votes and a quieter strategy was proposed. In March 2010, City Manager Curt Walton announced via memo that he had amended his personnel policies to include “sexual orientation” in the city’s non-discrimination practices. With nary a substantial glance from local mainstream media, some community members didn’t know about the change for weeks. Some city employees were also kept out of the loop.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering rankled many including this newspaper, which editorialized against the move and for a more public and proactive approach. Those who had come to expect a council vote pointed out that such a public tally of elected officials’ support would have been an historic step for the city, which only once, in 1992, voted on, though ultimately rejected, a gay-inclusive policy.

The city’s lack of public, on-the-record LGBT inclusion would take center stage in some activist circles when Democrats announced they would hold their 2012 convention here. Charlotte, trudging slowly along its own path, ranked dead last when compared to other past convention host cities and 2012 finalists. Cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Boston and Denver each had fully-LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies or ordinances. Most already had domestic partner plans in place.

North Carolina furniture-maker and philanthropist Mitchell Gold was determined to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire. So, last June, Gold invited Foxx and a dozen local LGBT community leaders, including this writer, to dinner.

“The mayor had been calling me to support his election and the Democratic National Convention,” says Gold. “I took advantage of that opportunity. I said we can’t have this convention come to a city that doesn’t extend full equality to LGBT people. [Foxx] was very open and willing to talk about it and have dinner.”

Current MeckPAC Chair Scott Bishop, who was at the dinner with Foxx and Gold, says progressive changes were already on their way, though the DNC created a new sense of urgency.

“I don’t think that dinner was primarily sparked by the DNC, but I don’t think that meeting would have happened in that way and at that time if the DNC were not coming,” he says.

That night’s dinner served as a sort of rallying point for those who attended. The challenge had been set. In the weeks following, representatives of a variety of organizations set out upon the work needed to lobby council members and secure the votes needed for fully-inclusive ordinances and domestic partner benefits.

“The community really got together,” says Gold. “I was thrilled with all the people who came to that dinner and then afterward taking the ball and running with it. It says a lot about Charlotte and its leadership that they could take one dinner and make it into something.”

Community members’ advocacy work would continue on for the next year, even in the face of an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment threat. Meetings were set. A poll was commissioned; conducted by the Durham, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling, it was funded by a variety of private citizens and the Denver, N.C., security risk mitigation firm The Threadstone Group.

The results were positive. Fifty-six percent of those Charlotte voters surveyed favored extending domestic partner benefits to employees’ same-sex partners. An astonishing 83 percent of those in favor of the benefits said they would support the use of taxpayer funds to pay for the benefits extension.

More meetings followed as citizens and city employees alike shared the polling results, their personal stories and their desire to see their city move forward. Finally, a strategy for adopting the benefits was crafted and MeckPAC’s action alert was issued.

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On May 29, MeckPAC members, citizens and several LGBT and straight ally city, police and fire department employees asked council to approve their 2012-2013 budget complete with the included domestic partner benefits. The partner plan also garnered the public support of the Charlotte Fire Fighters Association, a local affiliate of the AFL-CIO International Fire Fighters Association.

On June 25, the years of advocacy work finally paid off, as council approved their new budget and extended authority to City Manager Curt Walton to develop and implement a domestic partner benefits plan.

“The city manager has supported this for a long time and I think it was a stroke of genius to just build it into the budget,” says Councilmember Patsy Kinsey (D-District 1).

The decision not to hold a separate, up-or-down vote on the partner plan was strategic, says Bishop.

“Not risking controversy was the right decision,” he says. “There are some policy changes you want enacted publicly in order to shed a light on a situation that is unjust. If that was our primary or only objective this time, we might have taken a different approach. What I had in mind was the people it would most benefit and that was the city workers. Our strategy to get it enacted needed to have that end in mind.”

Others agree that it worked.

“I think that sort of kept it out of the limelight,” Kinsey says, noting the relatively little controversy stirred up by the proposed measure. “Some people would have liked a separate vote, but I think the important part was to get it passed.”

Now that the measure is enacted, defending the new benefits from potential threats caused by the recently-passed anti-LGBT amendment will take dedication and resolve. At press time, Charlotte and other municipal and county governments across the state were awaiting an official advisory from North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Councilmember John Autry (D-District 5) and LaWana Mayfield (D-District 3) have both said they’d be willing to defend the plan if legal challenges should arise.

“We should stand up for what is right and just and fair,” Autry says.

•••••

Though policies and practices are becoming more inclusive, Charlotte City Council still has yet to take a public vote on an LGBT-inclusive measure. MeckPAC Steering Committee member Roberta Dunn says a focus on strategy, rather than results, is misplaced.

“There’s always a tremendous amount of effort behind the scenes to get everyone to agree,” she says. “Going through the city manager and adding [the domestic partner plan] to the budget was a lot easier. Sometimes the path of least resistance is best to get the job done. And, in reality there was a motion to exclude domestic partner benefits [in a budget meeting]. It never got a second.”

If that motion had been seconded, Kinsey says the plan still would have passed.

“We had the votes even if someone had been able to pull it out,” she says. “We had the votes to make it happen. We knew we had [the mayor’s] support. The community came forward and they did a phenomenal job talking to council members and to the leadership of the community.”

With protections for gay workers and partner benefits complete, MeckPAC says vote-counting, strategy-making and community conversations must continue. More work is left, like employment non-discrimination protections for transgender workers.

Bishop expects future goals will come more easily than in the past. The relationships built over the past several years are strong. “What I’ve found is that each [elected official] is very open to meet with citizens and hear their concerns,” he says.

As a longtime city employee, Warshaur finds the recent progress comforting. More openly LGBT city employees are creating a culture change. Straight allies are speaking up. The city, he says, is moving forward.

“The important thing for people to remember is that change takes time,” he says. “People have worked on this for years. This has been a revolution. There will always be setbacks but we will continue to move forward as we create a better society.”

Years after the first volley toward local LGBT equality was made, Vetter, too, is relishing the progressive momentum.

“I don’t buy the whole ‘Charlotte is the buckle of the Bible Belt’ bit,” she says. “Charlotte has many open-minded, progressive people. We might not march in the streets or hold signs in city council meetings, but there is growth and as we’re more open and out and we welcome more straight allies into our movement, we will grow together.” : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.