Sitting in a City Council conference room on the 15th floor of Uptown’s government center, two of the city’s most influential lesbian women are discussing their pasts, how they met and the work they believe must still be done in the community.
Councilmember LaWana Mayfield’s journey to a seat in local government and attorney Connie Vetter’s years-long work representing her own LGBT clients and the larger community are heroic in and of themselves — especially in a world where politics, money, law and society are still largely dominated by heterosexual men. But, their journey is also representative of the collective decades of work by courageous women leaders — many lesbian or bisexual, some straight — who blazed a path for them.
A place of their own
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the world, quite simply, was a different place. The nation had been rocked by a tumultuous Civil Rights Movement, assassinations and the Vietnam War. Calls for radical change emanated from communities long oppressed and silenced.
Among people of color, youth and early lesbian and gay rights activists, women took their place at the helm of movements for change.
In the early 1970s, that movement took root in Charlotte, with the founding of the Charlotte Women’s Center. What began simply as meetings in members’ homes grew to a physical meeting space of their own off of East Blvd. in Dilworth.
In 1973, Concetta Caliendo became involved. The Vietnam War — still two years from its end — remained at the forefront of many minds. Women, she said, took particular umbrage at the war. Many themselves had been involved with the armed services and others spoke out in concern for husbands, boyfriends, brothers, children or friends.
“I think what happened at that time is that’s when women really started to gather amongst themselves,” Caliendo says.
That very act of gathering together was itself radical, as women involved in organizations like the Women’s Center sought to create empowering and safe women-only spaces.
“They had basically been at the bottom of the rung,” she says.
Many of the women who’d begun the Center had come from the Left — children of men and women of the World War II era. They’d seen their mothers leave the home during that global conflict, taking places normally reserved for men, only to be returned to their prior “station” when the men came home.
“During that war, women went out and worked the same work that men did and women went out and did all this stuff and the minute the men came back, sorry, you’re back in the kitchen,” Caliendo says.
Decades later, women were still battling social pressures, restrictions and oppression. At the Center, women could let go and build toward a better future, she says.
“The number one thing that was the most important thing about the Charlotte Women’s Center — the Women’s Center was for women only. Men were not allowed there,” she says. “We wanted women to become empowered, because that’s what we needed to do at that time. That’s what the Women’s Center was about. It allowed women to say whatever they wanted to and know it was safe there. It was a safe place for women.”
At the Center, women were guaranteed privacy and confidentiality. More importantly, they were offered opportunities to learn, to shape their own futures, to stand united with other women in a sense of solidarity. The Center offered a library, writing and journaling classes, consciousness-raising groups, peer counseling and more. Lesbian art and literary magazine Sinister Wisdom, still in publication today, even saw its start at the Women’s Center in 1976.
“The Charlotte Women’s Center is a life space, provided by Women for Women,” an undated newsletter from sometime in the 1970s reads. “Here we share our hopes, dreams and anger; our experiences and skills. Sharing these in a place that is our own, we gain strength to change our lives and strength to change our world.”
The solidarity of strength and change proved itself powerful when women needed assistance. Caliendo remembers one woman’s husband who came searching for her at the Center. He pounded on the door, ranted and raved. Another was scooped off the sidewalk after she jumped from a car driving on East Blvd. Caliendo says the Center was a refuge. The women stood by their sisters and would come to stand by countless other women in need — later advocating local government to extend its support to a battered women’s shelter.
“We talked about solidarity a lot,” Caliendo says, noting the strong relationships between other minorities, such as anti-racist movements of the period. “We were giving women and lesbian women the opportunity to allow themselves to feel solidarity with women and what we could build on that.”
While the world was still hostile, changes were, indeed, occurring. In 1972, Liz Hair became the first woman elected to the previously all-male Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. By 1974, she chaired the body.
And, it was Hair who witnessed, Caliendo says, one of the earliest moments of lesbian or gay public activism in Charlotte.
The Women’s Center had staked its ground on radical inclusion — heterosexual and lesbian women came together to advocate for change and broader inclusion.
“Radical things happened there that had not happened anywhere else,” Caliendo says.
By the mid-1970s, a larger gay community — at least for men — had already begun to take shape in Charlotte. Some support and social groups existed, though many gay community interactions still revolved around clubs like The Scorpio, founded in 1968. Lesbians from the Women’s Center, supported by their sisters, wanted more.
As Hair served on the County Commission, a group of lesbian women went to a meeting. Their demand was simple, but wildly controversial.
“They went to the County Commission meeting and they made a request that they have a lesbian seated there,” Caliendo recounts. “They came back to the Center and a bunch of us were there waiting and they said, ‘Well, you would have thought we went in there with our hair on fire.’ They were not treated well.”
Caliendo says the lesbian women knew not to expect a positive outcome.
“But they went down there anyway,” she says. “These are the outrageous, brave things that happened there.”
‘Lesbians became angels’
As the 1970s waned, women in the LGBT community found themselves taking on new and more outspoken roles.
Billie (Stickle) Rose was among them. Rose, who passed in 2001, had run for Charlotte City Council before coming out. Her friend, early LGBT community organizer Don King, says she’d just wanted the experience. Her vision, he says, was to create space where she and others could simply feel part of the community.
“She was a little firebrand,” King says. “One of the sweetest, most determined people I can remember. If she was going to do something or felt a certain way about something, if you intended to change her mind about it, you better have all your reasoning done. In her gentle way, she would not be pushed off course.”
King met Rose in 1977 or 1978. She was one of few women who attended the local Dignity chapter, a national organization originally founded to support LGBT Catholics. It became a sort of early support and empowerment mechanism for LGBT people of all backgrounds in Charlotte.
Rose and King would go on to begin Charlotte’s first LGBT political organization, the Lambda Political Caucus. Later, the two would co-found Queen City Quordinators, fundraising and supporting a variety of LGBT projects and community organizations.
Just as women’s profiles began to grow, the gay male community was hit with the life- and movement-altering AIDS Crisis.
Lesbian women like Rose, says King, were God-sends — and the crisis, he says, helped bridge the male and female communities within broader LGBT culture.
“Before AIDS, I think we had the men’s silo and the women’s silo, and there was not a whole lot of interaction between them. There was interaction, but not much,” King says. “When the AIDS Crisis happened, I think lesbians became angels, because I know in a good number of cases here in Charlotte lesbians were strong caregivers. They came out in droves and ministered to sick men. During the AIDS Crisis and after I think men and women became closer. I think there began to be a bigger, more inclusive silo.”
As men and women in the LGBT community grew closer, so did networking opportunities. But, women also continued to host their own female-affirming spaces — Queen City Friends, among them. At the Women’s Center, more public events like Take Back the Night raised awareness and spoke out against sexual violence.
As more women spoke out, it inspired others to take broader steps into community leadership positions, politically, socially and more.
Longtime activist Mandy Carter was among those providing leadership and inspiration. By the mid-1980s, Carter had solidified her role as a go-to organizer for North Carolina’s LGBT and other social justice causes — directing anti-war groups, chairing the state committee for the 1987 March on Washington and serving with a variety of other lesbian, feminist and LGBT groups.
In Charlotte, newcomers like Sue Henry also stepped up. Henry moved to the Queen City in 1988. She’d been politically active and inclined in Boston, but didn’t see nearly the same kind of community activity with which she had become accustomed. As the decade ended, she sought to change it.
Support and growth
In 1991, Henry founded Rising Moon Books, the city’s second lesbian and gay bookstore after King’s first Friends of Dorothy. At an East Blvd. shop, Henry worked to create space for the community to learn, network and organize for change. Henry says she considered the store a de facto community space, offering room for community organizations’ announcements and more.
While Henry was offering space in the comfort of a bookstore, Tonda Taylor was working to create an affirming space, too. That same year, Taylor founded Time Out Youth.
Taylor had recently moved back to Charlotte from New York City. She’d lived in Greenwich Village there, but had no social network here, knowing just a handful of openly lesbian or gay people.
Working at Charter Pines Psychiatric Hospital, Taylor says she encountered young people sent there “to be fixed” by their parents. The hospital didn’t engage in “ex-gay” conversion or therapy, but when the youth left there was no support. Local youths’ needs were going unaddressed.
“One of the women who worked there, who was a bisexual woman, her daughter was in a car pool with girls at East Meck High,” Taylor recounts. “Two of the girls had confided in her daughter that they were a lesbian couple and they were having a frightening, miserable time.”
Around the same time, Taylor met Nila and Stokley Bailey, straight parents who had founded Charlotte’s PFLAG chapter in 1986.
“The Baileys told me that Charlotte desperately needed a group that would support youth,” Taylor says.
Left a small inheritance from her brother, who had, with their father, died from AIDS after contracting HIV during a blood transfusion, Taylor quit her job at the hospital and founded Time Out Youth.
As the ‘90s wore on and services expanded, others contracted. The Charlotte Women’s Center, one of the longest-standing Women’s Collectives in the South, closed in 1993, though some of its lesbian leaders continued working on social and political causes through groups like the Lesbian Avengers. Others, including Caliendo, organized later in the 1990s to publish the short-lived, but essential Carolina Lesbian News from 1997 through 1999.
In between, Henry made history, becoming the city’s first openly lesbian or gay candidate for mayor. Organized in just six weeks, the write-in campaign was the direct result of rampant homophobia. Both Democrat Hoyle Martin and the eventually-successful Republican Pat McCrory had espoused a variety of anti-gay views. Community members wanted to challenge the prevailing thought, and Henry — or, more, specifically, the simplicity of her name, she says — was chosen to represent them.
The campaign was short, but it had its desired effect. Henry gained just two or so percent of the vote, but the media reach and one-on-one voter education was worth it, she says.
The late-1990s would also force Charlotte to deal with homophobia head-on. The 1996-1997 controversy over a staging of the AIDS-themed play “Angels in America” spawned a new rebirth in local LGBT political action — a torch carried through the next decade and today by leaders like Mayfield and Vetter. : :
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more: Be sure to pick up qnotes’ next print edition or log online on June 6 for part two of “Then & Now: Women in Charlotte’s LGBT Movement.” Part two of this special feature will chronicle further progress from the late-1990s through the present, and explore leaders’ reflections on the many changes in community successes, priorities and more.
[Ed. Note — The original version of this article mistakenly identified Don King and Bille (Stickle) Rose as co-founders of Metrolina Community Service Project. The organization’s founder is John Quillin. We regret this error.]