Charlotte’s moment to shine in the national and international spotlight went off with nary a hitch earlier this month, as thousands of out-of-town visitors poured in to attend the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Whether as official delegates or other guests, journalists, police or other support staff, all our DNC visitors heard much of the same story over and over: Charlotte is a diverse, progressive and dynamic “New South” city.
Most visitors, according to local media and my own interactions with guests, would have agreed with city leaders’ and boosters’ claims. Charlotte is a phenomenal town with progressive ideals and an accepting culture. Great food, great nightlife, a walkable Uptown and friendly residents willing to answer guests’ every beck and call. It’s true we have a great city, but what our leaders failed to tell the public is that so much of the city’s accepted storyline was nothing more than smoothly-crafted PR messaging.
Socially and economically, Charlotte is diverse and it is accepting. LGBT locals experience little discrimination in restaurants, bars or other public spaces. Politically, the LGBT community has made more progress here in the past three years under Anthony Foxx than in all the preceding 22 years we were led by Republican mayors.
But, truth is always more complex than any press release can ever fully explain. Though all of the positive traits attributed to our city are true , the LGBT community remains left with hardly any tangible political success to speak of. Our mayor and other city leaders have spoken at our events and written us welcome letters. We have new personnel policies protecting LGB (though not transgender) city workers. Partners of LGBT city employees will soon be able to access domestic partner benefits.
Yet, these small steps toward progress cannot be the full extent of what is possible here. In order to live up to its own self-made hype, Charlotte must do several things to ensure continued legal and social acceptance for LGBT people. These steps are simple and taken by cities comparable to ours the nation over, some of which were taken by the three DNC host city finalists we beat out, but who left us dead last when it came to official LGBT protections.
So, as we move forward, let’s cast the boosterism aside and take real action to make equality real. Among the necessary improvements:
- Charlotte City Council must bring to a public meeting and vote upon a fully-inclusive city ordinance codifying its personnel policy on non-discrimination and include both sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Charlotte City Council must bring to a public meeting and vote upon amendments to the Commercial Non-Discrimination Ordinance prohibiting businesses contracting with the city from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
- The city must work with officials at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to finally institute a special liaison to, with and for the LGBT community, as has been done in several cities across the U.S. and in the South, including Atlanta.
- The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners must bring to a public meeting and vote upon amendments to its non-discrimination policy in order to protect transgender workers.
- The mayor, city council and county commission must work together to establish a joint city-county task force or advisory board for LGBT citizens, business owners and youth, thereby ensuring continued inclusion and holding city and county government accountable to their self-instituted commitments to inclusion and diversity.
- As the LGBT community has grown here and shown itself to be a vital component of the city’s economic and cultural engine, Charlotte City Council and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners should find ways to support local LGBT non-profits through grants, sponsorships or other projects or programs. If cities like Columbia, S.C., can financially support their local LGBT community center by sponsoring their annual Pride festivities, I see no reason why the region’s largest city cannot also do the same and more.
There are many other projects, programs and improvements local government and local organizations can take to more fully include LGBT people into the life of the city. Getting the above accomplished completely and soon will put us on track to truly becoming the progressive New South city our leaders have spent years telling the nation we are — messaging that only became louder and louder as the DNC neared and finally came to town.
If Charlotte truly desires to be what it claims it already is, then local leaders must be willing to take risks and do what it is right. Gone are the days when local LGBT people fawn over a mayor’s short appearance at a luncheon or gush over a boiler plate welcome letter in which the words “gay” or “lesbian” are simply dropped in by an intern, clerk or secretary.
Now is the time for real action by our local leaders — action that requires real courage, true leadership and an honest desire to fully represent all of Charlotte’s constituents. That kind of action requires voting and a public commitment, rather than backroom policy deals, to create real change.
President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have shown true and courageous leadership in their outspoken support of marriage equality and other LGBT equality measures. It is an example Charlotte should follow now and without delay. : :