CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County commissioners tonight voted 6-3 to add protections for transgender workers to the county’s non-discrimination policy.
Commissioner Kim Ratliff, a Democrat, introduced the motion with the support of Democratic Commissioners Trevor Fuller and George Dunlap. Ratliff’s policy revision adds the phrase “actual or perceived gender as expressed through dress, appearance, or behavior” to the equal employment and non-discrimination policy for county workers. The proposal also adds “political affiliation” to the policy. The county last updated the policy in 2005, when it added sexual orientation.
Debate on the policy revision followed hours of debate on other controversial topics, including the county’s mental health system, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
Scott Bishop, chair of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), said the revision was necessary for the county to continue to compete for good employees.
In the past five years, he said, the number of corporations including employee protections for transgender workers has more than doubled.
“Corporate America recognizes that talent comes in all forms,” he said. “Many municipalities are also following suit and realizing they need to compete for this talent pool. Providing these protections at the local level is an important step in ensuring transgender Americans are provided the same opportunities as other candidates in hiring.”
Debate, like the vote, fell largely among party lines, though Democrat Vilma Leake questioned the definition of “transgender” and the need for the additional language.
Ratliff and other supporters said the policy revision was simply meant to bring the county’s policies in line with federal regulations. In 2012, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that discriminating against a person on the basis of their gender identity constituted illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“It’s really straight forward,” said Dunlap. “It’s updating our policy to reflect what federal policy says we have to follow. I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s wrong to update our policies when they need to be updated.”
Yet, Republicans Bill James, Karen Bentley and Matthew Ridenhour each objected.
James said the policy would allow “men in dresses” to use women’s restrooms.
“I don’t think that Mecklenburg County employees — the female ones — are going to want to be sitting in a stall in a bathroom and see a man in the stall next to them,” James said. “Just because a guy dresses like Little Bo Peep does not mean he gets to go into the women’s bathroom.”
The successfully-passed policy change applies only to the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy and does not affect other areas, like James’ concerns over public bathroom usage at county facilities.
James also questioned if citizens would support the change.
“This will have a much more longer-reaching impact in terms of negative reaction,” James said. “Most people don’t even know it is on the agenda and when they find out and they start thinking about their mothers and girls who are county workers, they will wonder what’s going on.”
Bentley said the policy revision was redundant. Ridenhour asked why the county couldn’t simply adopt a one-size-fits-all policy.
“Can’t we just simplify the policy by saying we won’t discriminate against anybody for any reason,” he asked.
Equality North Carolina, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, praised the local action in Mecklenburg County.
“Tonight’s historic vote by the Mecklenburg County Commissioners sends a clear signal that LGBT employees and their families deserve equal treatment,” Chris Sgro, executive director for Equality NC, said in a release prior to the meeting. “In the wake of this vote from North Carolina’s most populous county, we urge other cities and counties in North Carolina to also take this vital step, and join the county of Mecklenburg in protecting hardworking LGBT employees from discrimination, harassment, mistreatment and being fired simply for who they are.”
The commission’s vote brings Mecklenburg County’s human resources policies in line with those in the City of Charlotte. In 2010, former Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton added sexual orientation to his human resources policy. In 2012, he also added protections for transgender workers.
Sixteen city and county governments across the state provide some form of LGBT employee protections. Mecklenburg becomes only the third county, following Orange and Buncombe, to protect transgender workers. Only five cities — Asheville, Boone, Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Charlotte — also include protections for gender identity or expression.
[Ed. Note — The original version of this article noted incorrectly that Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton had added sexual orientation to the city’s human resources policies in 2009. The change actually occurred in March 2010. We regret the error.]