In what will likely go down as a landmark year for LGBT equality across the nation, the LGBT community in Charlotte was making its own remarkable progress on inclusion and visibility.
At the forefront of this significant shift in local political culture stood Patsy Kinsey, a decade-long veteran of local politics, a Charlotte City Council District 1 representative and, for six months this year, mayor of Charlotte. Standing beside her were Charlotte City Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, now in her second term, and Plaza Midwood businessman Billy Maddalon, who filled Kinsey’s District 1 seat while she served as mayor.
In just three short years, Charlotte went from a city with no LGBT protections and no LGBT political representation to a city with some of the most progressive legal protections in the state, two openly gay representatives and a mayor among six other North Carolina colleagues who joined a national coalition advancing the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Kinsey, an often soft-spoken, behind-the-scenes leader, was, perhaps, an unlikely choice to lead a city like Charlotte. Once chosen, however, she and the city didn’t look back. Kinsey led her colleagues through an intense year, with great energy spent on the city’s fight over the airport. But, on social issues and for local LGBT residents, Kinsey was a breath of fresh air.
Her predecessor, Anthony Foxx, had made several significant efforts to extend welcome to LGBT citizens, but it was Kinsey who took inclusion to an ultimate level. She appeared at a variety of LGBT community functions and, in a first, issued a mayoral proclamation for Charlotte Pride and rode at the front of the Bank of America Charlotte Pride Parade. When her car got to the end of the parade route, she drove back to Independence Square and sat as an honorary member of the judges’ panel and later spoke from the festival’s stage. She also spoke out against anti-LGBT violence in Charlotte’s Russian sister city, going so far as to request a meeting with local activists, the city’s sister-city committee, representatives from the international Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department.
“Inclusion is just natural to me,” Kinsey told qnotes. “I don’t think much about it. I tell people when they ask about why I am so active with the LGBT community or the immigrant community, I long ago just adopted the belief that we’re all God’s children.”
It’s that personally-driven commitment to inclusion and equality that shaped Kinsey’s time in office — all the way up until her last week in office. In her departing remarks during a “State of the City” address, Kinsey took that commitment even further, turning “the Charlotte Way” on its head and transforming it from an Old South, good ol’ boys system into a way of local life with deeper, more significant meaning.
“Ensuring that all of Charlotte’s residents feel at home in our City is the Charlotte Way,” Kinsey said in her speech, interpreting her own legacy as tied to the inclusion of Charlotte’s LGBT and immigrant communities, and later adding, “I hope we will strive to follow the Charlotte Way. To favor collaboration over division; inclusion over exclusion; partnership over separation.”
With Kinsey, and making her vision a reality, stood Mayfield and Maddalon — a lesbian woman and gay man who brought face and voice to the LGBT community, molding and shaping the hearts and minds of their Council colleagues, city staff and other civic and religious leaders, along with their constituents.
“Showing up in the room and not hiding who I am,” is important, Mayfield told qnotes.
“I can’t hide who I am as an African-American female, obviously,” she said. “I didn’t see the need to hide who I was regarding my relationship — my committed, monogamous relationship with a woman. That’s a part of me, because she’s a part of me.”
Mayfield’s act of authenticity had an impact, particularly on the city’s June 2012 decision to extend health and other benefits to same-sex partners of city employees.
“One of my colleagues said to me three or four months afterwards that it was because of knowing me and [Mayfield’s partner] Gelissa, that they knew that to vote against domestic partner benefits … they felt like that would be a vote directly against us,” Mayfield said. “I didn’t realize until after the fact the impact of just being at the table and how important it is to just have a voice.”
Mayfield’s work bringing a voice to LGBT issues “paved the way” for Maddalon, an openly gay businessman who found himself entering Council mid-term.
“I had the benefit of coming in and people having moved past the [thought], ‘It’s going to be interesting seeing how the gay guy does now,’” Maddalon said. “I don’t think that’s where people were at all.”
Yet, even Maddalon had opportunities to move the conversation forward. Describing himself as a centrist Democrat, he often found himself having friendly conversations with Council’s not-so-progressive members and other centrist or conservative civic leaders.
“You just have to appreciate how powerful it is,” Maddalon said, “when people begin to admit openly that they thought they knew what gay people looked like — to the extent that you can know what a gay person looks like — and admitting, ‘My God, you come in all shapes and sizes just like we do.’”
With two openly gay representatives and a mayor, even if only for six months, who put equality, inclusion and fairness at the top of their agendas, Charlotte moved forward in unexpected ways. Decades of anti-gay bigotry and official silence and invisibility melted away. Mayfield will be the first to warn that the work is far from over. But, in 2013, Kinsey’s, Mayfield’s and Maddalon’s work has given our city a pretty good start.
For their personal courage, commitment, passion and selfless public service, the staff of qnotes is very proud to name our 2013 People of the Year: Charlotte City Councilmember and former Mayor Patsy Kinsey, Councilmember LaWana Mayfield and former Councilmember Billy Maddalon. : :