The North Carolina General Assembly opened for its new year of business on Jan. 14. With the opening of its new session comes a new opportunity to make progress on further LGBT equality initiatives.
That opportunity will be severely limited — Republicans, whose leadership remains staunchly in support of the state’s overturned LGBT marriage ban, still control both chambers of the legislature. There are real threats the GOP could push ahead with a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Similar legislation was considered and killed in Arizona and Kansas. Such legislation has been derided as a “license to discriminate” by LGBT advocates.
North Carolina State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger sent the first salvo in a potential anti-gay legislative fight in October, following federal judges’ overturning of the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment. At a political rally in Rockingham County on Oct. 21, Berger promised to introduce a bill that would exempt magistrates, registers of deeds and other government employees from serving LGBT citizens if doing so “would violate their core religious beliefs.”
LGBT advocates have rightly countered Berger’s position, arguing that government officials tasked with providing services to citizens shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which citizens they will serve.
There’s no reason to doubt Berger’s priorities here. Expect him to follow through on his threat. He’s been among the most outspoken and extremist anti-LGBT voice in the legislature. It’ll be up to statewide advocates, like those at Equality North Carolina, and local groups across the state to counter the effort as strategically as possible.
In the meantime, though, there are several other actions advocates could take in helping to shepherd in expanded protections for LGBT residents. Getting the conversation started will take a variety of actions, but among them is the introduction of several bills, either individually or in one omnibus package, that would include a variety of new measures intended to protect LGBT youth, homeowners and renters and workers:
Equality North Carolina has several times in the past attempted to pass statewide legislation that would prohibit discrimination against state government employees. At least one version has also included teachers. These efforts should be expanded to protect all workers, private or public.
Public accommodations and housing
No person should ever fear losing their housing or being denied service or access open to members of the public simply due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some municipalities, including Greensboro and Charlotte, are attempting to at least address public accommodations at a local level, but general statewide protections are needed. But until such a time as the legislature takes this matter up, it’s best for municipalities to push ahead as best they can. A patchwork of protections across the state could eventually force the state’s hand.
Conversion therapy ban
Dangerous so-called “ex-gay” and conversation therapies have dangerous consequences. The story of one youth, 17-year-old Ohio transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, has pushed this issue to the forefront. Alcorn had been the victim of “Christian” conversion-style therapy, forced to see the therapist by her parents. In December, Alcorn died by suicide after years of harassment and rejection from her parents and family. Only three jurisdictions — California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. — have outlawed these dangerous therapeutic practices on minors. Medical and other professional associations, including the American Psychological Association and National Association of Social Workers, have come out against reparative “ex-gay” therapy.
Despite the passage of LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying measures in the state’s 2009 School Violence Prevention Act, young people across the state continue to face bullying, harassment and discrimination in a variety of school settings. Chiefly, LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying and non-discrimination protections should be expanded to cover all charter schools, in addition to any private school receiving taxpayer funds through the Opportunity Scholarship program, the GOP’s private-school voucher scheme. Many schools receiving taxpayer-funded assistance for student tuition often openly and unapologetically discriminate against students who are LGBT or who have LGBT parents, siblings or other relatives. Near Charlotte, Huntersville’s SouthLake Christian Academy’s policy is so far-reaching that students, regardless of their own sexual orientation, could potentially be expelled simply for having a distant LGBT relative whom they or their parents refuse to openly condemn or by sharing an LGBT-affirming or LGBT-inclusive thought on their personal social media. Educational institutions unwilling to serve all citizens equally and without malice or bias shouldn’t be in line to receive taxpayer funds. : :