2013 was an historic year for the LGBT community. Celebrations of inclusion and progress were felt all the way down at the local level, where Charlotte City Councilmember and former Mayor Patsy Kinsey helped lead the way toward greater visibility for the LGBT community.
But, Kinsey had help, and plenty of it. Community members rallied in Charlotte like never before, and two leaders, in particular, gave a face and voice to the community. Charlotte Councilmember LaWana Mayfield and former Councilmember Billy Maddalon were right in the middle of the action.
people of the year
Mayfield, the city’s first openly gay or lesbian official, and Maddalon, the city’s second, served side-by-side for six months this year, helping to mold and shape 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.”
That presence has been important, not only for LGBT constituents but for the entire community. Mayfield said she’s not just an LGBT representative; she represents her entire district and the city. In doing so, Mayfield has advocated on behalf of several communities. She took a lead, particularly, on a movement to “Ban the Box” — taking questions about prior felonies off city employment applications. That movement, she said, is about economic and social justice and it affects all kinds of people, of all races, backgrounds and sexualities.
Mayfield’s work bringing a voice to LGBT and other social justice issues “paved the way” for himself, said Maddalon, an openly gay businessman who found himself entering Council mid-term.
“There’s no question that LaWana paved the way, though, because by the time I enter the room Lawana’s been there for almost two years,” he said. “She’s a hardworking gal. She’s got a reputation for knowing her stuff. She’s out in the community working really, really hard. So, she’s earned her place at the table, not just by virtue of getting elected, but by virtue of she’s not just sitting there saying, ‘I’m the lesbian in the room.’ She’s a working City Council person.”
“So, 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.’”
Maddalon believes Charlotte has “grown up” and joined other “New South” communities in their rate of acceptance and inclusion.
“I think it was inevitable,” Maddalon said, “but I don’t want to dismiss and not give the people of this community the credit I think they deserve for growing up. Let’s not forget that Charlotte is a community that really would have had some real headwinds and challenges, particularly on LGBT issues given the influence of our faith communities.”
But, even there, change is occurring, he said.
“My sense is that the faith communities are actually starting to take a lead in diversity and equality in this community including LGBT people and that’s refreshing,” Maddalon said. “It could have been a situation, and it often has been in our past where, business was taking the lead and the faith community was lagging behind and even resisting change. … Now you don’t hear as much of that. I’m sure its still out there my guess is there’s just a lot more of the big old Charlotte faith communities that are saying diversity is good for the soul, it’s good for people and it’s good for all of us to understand each other and to learn to peacefully co-exist and live, even if we have differences of opinion.”
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.