Originally published: July 9, 2013, 9:30 a.m.
Updated: July 10, 2013, 11:50 a.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Leaders from LGBT advocacy groups joined with representatives from regional and national businesses on Wednesday at a press conference highlighting the need for expanded employment protections for LGBT workers.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, gathered with other advocates, elected officials and business leaders on Wednesday at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
“There is nothing more basic, more fundamental or even, quite frankly, more conservative than guaranteeing each and every American an equal opportunity to prove themselves by working hard,” Griffin said during the press conference. “But today in more than half the states in this country including right here in the state of North Carolina, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people don’t get that same guarantee of a fair shot. That’s because in each of these places there is no law protecting employees form being fired simply because of who they are, how they were born or, in a religious context, how God made them.”
Griffin is on a week-long tour through the South to bring attention to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
On Wednesday, the legislation passed 15-7 in an initial vote in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. North Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R) and Kay Hagan (D) both serve on the committee. The committee’s 12 Democrats, including Hagan, voted for the bill, as did Republican U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Orrin Hatch (Utah). Kirk was a co-sponsor of the bill.
Burr said in a statement on Tuesday that he would not support ENDA.
“It is my hope that our society can be tolerant of different people and ideas,” Burr said. “That said, whenever we consider new legislation we must always consider the interplay of new laws with existing rights. I am concerned that the ENDA bill would go beyond our existing laws protecting individuals’ employment rights.”
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom To Work, an organization committed to advancing LGBT workplace equality, said on Wednesday that the committee vote signaled increased momentum on LGBT issues.
“Today’s vote is a monumental step forward for gay civil rights in this country and an important moment in the fight to end workforce discrimination. We applaud the leadership of Senator Harkin, Senator Kirk, Senator Merkley, Senator Murkowski, Senator Hatch and many others who made today’s vote possible,” Almeida said in a statement. “Taken with the Supreme Court rulings last month, today’s vote shows that the tide has turned and the movement for full LGBT rights will not go backwards. Those who continue to stand in the way of the march towards the freedom to work, like the Republicans who voted against the legislation today, not only find themselves on the wrong side of history they find themselves on the wrong side of the founding principles of our country – justice and freedom. We will continue this fight to ensure this vital legislation passes the full Senate, the House and is signed into law by the President. Because it is far past time that all people in this country have the freedom to work.”
Also speaking at the press conference was Jim Overton of Self-Help Credit Union, Mitchell Gold of Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams and North Carolina state Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford). Others also appeared in support of the press event, including representatives from Greensboro’s Replacements Ltd., Ryan Butler of the LGBT Democrats of North Carolina, staffers and board members from Equality North Carolina, Charlotte City Councilmember Beth Pickering (D-At large), Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Pat Cotham (D-At large) and Commissioner Kim Ratliff (D-At large).
Support in the South
Griffin’s tour through the South began in his home state of Arkansas. After his visit in North Carolina, Griffin is scheduled to visit Virginia and Mississippi.
Leaders in North Carolina say Griffin’s and HRC’s attention on ENDA and their southern tour immediately following last month’s Supreme Court decisions are a positive sign of the national organization’s support for equality movements in this region.
“Indications that I’ve seen suggest that there are a lot of organizations, a lot of groups and a lot of funders who are starting to look at the South,” Equality North Carolina Executive Director Stuart Campbell told qnotes. “I think the fact that Chad is here today and HRC is here today and spending several days in the South is indicative of that.”
Polls, both local and national, consistently show that citizens across the country and in North Carolina support employment protections for LGBT people. Unlike marriage equality, such employment protections could be viable issues for LGBT advocates in Charlotte and North Carolina, where several national corporations with headquarters or significant presence here have already signed up to support HRC’s Coalition for Workplace Fairness.
“Members of that coalition include Wells Fargo, include Bank of America, include Time Warner Cable…They are very supportive of passing ENDA,” said Scott Bishop, a Charlotte resident, member of the HRC Board of Governors and chair of the local Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC).
Bishop and Campbell agreed that national support and attention to these issues in the South from groups like HRC and their corporate partners can help swing the pendulum here.
“For far too long, the South has been somewhat ignored by our community, but I think the fact of the matter is that the last region in our country that will receive full equality will probably be the South and unless we start working on it now, it will never happen,” said Campbell. “I think folks are starting to recognize that. We’re starting to see momentum. We’re seeing demographic changes in the South. And, all that adds to really an opportune time for folks to invest in the South and to redouble our efforts.”
Focus on local gains
Equality North Carolina and MeckPAC are both focused on gaining ground at the local level. Statewide progress has been stymied in the face of a hostile Republican-controlled legislature. But, cities, towns and counties are poised to move forward.
“We worked with some of our coalition partners in Buncombe County a couple months ago where they not only adopted domestic partner benefits for their employees but also workplace non-discrimination for their employees,” said Campbell. “There have been talk at looking at various [other] cities…We are definitely looking at some places in the east and in central North Carolina as our next steps.”
Several cities and counties already offer some LGBT protections. Ten cities offer employee protections on the basis of sexual orientation. Boone, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Charlotte and Orange County also include protections for transgender workers. Buncombe County, home to Asheville, became the fourth county in North Carolina to offer such benefits to LGBT couples, following Durham, Mecklenburg and Orange Counties. Several cities, including Asheville, already offer domestic partner benefits. Others include Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Durham and Greensboro.
Bishop and his team at MeckPAC have been behind the push for more inclusion in Charlotte, which was the last major city to adopt inclusive employment policies. In 2010, former City Manager Curt Walton added sexual orientation to his human resources policy; before his retirement in December 2012, he also added gender identity. MeckPAC has previously said they want Mecklenburg County to extend their protections to transgender workers as well.
Recent conversations on potential LGBT-inclusive changes to Charlotte’s Commercial Non-Discrimination Ordinance have brought renewed attention to local policy changes here. The ordinance requires businesses contracting with the city to certify they have certain non-discrimination standards. The ordinance does not currently include sexual orientation and gender identity.
MeckPAC is reportedly working on potential changes to the ordinance. A statewide anti-LGBT advocacy group has spoken out against any potential changes. And, according to some sources, there may not be enough votes on Charlotte City Council to secure the change.