After nearly six hours of fiery rhetoric and sermon-like speeches from almost 120 citizen speakers, occasional outbursts of audience emotion, and near a full hour of City Council debate, Charlotte’s government center chambers fell silent with anxious anticipation. Mayor Dan Clodfelter called for the yeas and nays on what LGBT advocates had hoped would be a landmark and historic package of non-discrimination ordinances, protecting Charlotteans on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
With six votes against and five in favor, the ordinances failed.
If you were watching from home, you would have heard a reserved, but clearly audible “wow” on the televised version.
It was a quick and shocking letdown after a raucous night of debate and weeks worth of lobbying and media frenzy — surprising even those who had opposed the ordinances.
“I was totally shocked,” said Flip Benham, perhaps the city’s most well-known anti-LGBT activist. “I knew we weren’t going to win and, then, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how they voted it down.”
Similar emotion filled local LGBT advocates’ minds in the hours and days after the March 2 meeting, when after months of discussion and planning, Charlotte City Council rejected a suite of four non-discrimination ordinances that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity, among other characteristics, to protections in public accommodations, passenger vehicles for hire, city commercial contracting and the city’s community relations committee’s regulations.
“I was bummed out,” Councilmember Al Austin said two days after the vote. “I don’t know if you saw my expression when I looked around and counted the votes. I was just blown away.”
Weeks of planning
I had begun covering the proposed non-discrimination effort in November. That’s when Scott Bishop, chair of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) and a local member of the Human Right’s Campaign’s national board of directors, called together a variety of community leaders and organizations for a discussion to push the ordinances through Council. Bishop had been having conversations with Council members beginning in July, culminating in an eventual Council briefing on the proposal at a dinner meeting on Nov. 24.
The weeks and months of planning had been intense for those involved — conference calls and meetings, media interviews and strategy sessions. For the most part, I stood on the sidelines, up until the Council decided to finally move forward with the package of ordinances in February. That’s when my publisher and I decided the newspaper needed to stake its claim — taking a position in favor of the ordinances and putting the paper’s weight behind their passage. I began sitting in on most planning calls and sessions.
By that time, the Charlotte Non-Discrimination Ordinance Coalition, comprised of local, regional and national organizations, had fully coalesced in support of the ordinances, with representatives from MeckPAC, the Charlotte Business Guild, Clergy for Equality, Equality NC, Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County, Genderlines, Straight Allies Charlotte, Democracy NC and the ACLU of North Carolina.
From the get-go, it was clear to me we’d have an uphill battle. We might find the votes to pass the full package — and everyone was hopeful that was the case — but we’d face stiff opposition from the religious right. Those fears were shared by most leaders in the coalition. And they proved true.
The NC Values Coalition, the group which led the push for North Carolina’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment, shifted their operations into high gear. First Baptist Church Pastor Mark Harris and his new advocacy group, Faith Matters NC, did, too. Franklin Graham spoke out. Radio ads were placed. Thousands of emails — upwards to 40,000 to all Council members — were generated.
It became clear to me, as I know it did for others, that no matter the weeks or months of planning, our side wasn’t going to be able to match the reach or volume of our opponents. Not, at least, with the quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy that had been chosen from the outset. Like many times before, this effort to undertake LGBT-inclusive change had been worked reservedly, out of the community and media spotlight. It is a strategy that I’d venture to guess most believe now was unwise — for several reasons, whether it be the now clearly demonstrated need for broader community education, particularly on transgender people, or the showing-up opponents gave to our lackluster community mobilization strategy.
Hindsight is, well, hindsight. But I hope our community will be able to find some lessons from the past few months of work on the ordinances. That’s why I thought it was important for this newspaper to take an indepth look at many of the questions we now now find ourselves facing.
I spent hours in the days after the failed vote speaking to community members and advocates involved in the ordinance effort, along with leaders from City Council. All agreed more education is needed. But there’s still strong, and some might say bitter, disagreement over strategy and direction.
March 2’s debate and failed vote had ricocheted through the entire community — with leaders and community members taking to social media and their circles of friends to ask questions, express outrage and, at times, point fingers. Just how did this happen? Just where did the plan or strategy go wrong? Who or what was to blame? There are lots of possible answers and even more tough questions to ponder.
A lost sixth vote?
In order to move anything through Charlotte City Council, you need six votes — the slimmest majority on the 11-member body. With a 9-2 Democratic majority, an outsider might think Charlotte’s LGBT community would have had an easy victory. But that’s not reality for the Queen City.
“As a coalition, we were confident that we had four votes — our two LGBT members of Council and our two strongest allies, Patsy Kinsey and John Autry,” said Cameron Joyce, president of the LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County and a coalition leader.
The Council’s two Republicans were largely written off, though early statements from Republican Ed Driggs seemed to have indicated he would at least not actively work against the proposal. Two Democrats — Michael Barnes and Greg Phipps — had already come out against the proposals.
That left three Democrats up for grabs, and gaining the additional two votes necessary for passage took further conversations and lobbying.
Eventually, it seemed to pay off.
“When I went to bed Friday night [before the vote], I was confident we had the six votes,” Councilmember John Autry told me. “But it was pretty obvious to several Council members that there was some shift in support over the weekend. I don’t know when it happened, but that’s when it became apparent.”
Austin, too, had noticed the shift.
“We had those six votes initially and things kind of changed over the weekend and we lost one of those votes for whatever reason,” he said.
By 11 a.m. on the morning of the March 2 meeting, what had seemed a close, but done deal started to unravel.
Austin said he met that morning with Councilmember Vi Lyles, reportedly by that time supportive of the full, original package of non-discrimination ordinances. They came up with a strategy to try and salvage the proposal, bringing along Kinsey.
They approached Councilmember Claire Fallon, too, who voted later that evening for an amended version of the ordinances that stripped restrooms and other facilities like shower rooms and locker rooms from the public accommodations ordinance.
Rumors shared on Facebook all point the finger for the lost vote at Fallon, but no one was willing to go on-record with me to confirm those rumors. Fallon emphatically denies it, telling me and others that she was never asked to support the full package, despite what seemed like her own enthusiastic support for the measure in preliminary meetings leading up to the March 2 vote.
“I don’t know,” she told me when I asked her if she would have voted for the original proposal. “It would be easy for me to say yes, but you want me to be honest? I don’t know.”
Fallon has an entirely different theory on why the proposal failed, pointing the finger squarely at LGBT advocates themselves.
“We went down there with five definite votes and a possible sixth and the LGBT people did it to themselves,” Fallon told radio talk station WBT the morning after the vote, views she shared again with me. “One of their advocates got up and he called anybody who didn’t agree stupid and ignorant which ticked off one Council man. One lost vote. The other Council man, after a diatribe of a Council person, stated his views and immediately the tweets started of calling him names, nasty names. And he turned to me and said, ‘That’s it. I’m not voting for it.’ They did it to themselves, and it will not come back to this Council because they will never get the six votes to put it on the agenda again, not after last night.”
Fallon’s taken the most heat for her comments, but other Democrats on Council are in the spotlight, too — particularly David Howard, Barnes and Phipps.
Barnes and Phipps weren’t ever likely to vote for any LGBT-inclusive measure, but Howard had the potential. Advocates worked relentlessly to secure his vote — a move that came only after an amended version stripped out bathrooms.
Advocates point out that the full package would have passed, if only Council allies had all stood strong on the original language.
“I am extremely disappointed that our supposed allies on the City Council did not support the language that we proposed after working with them for many months,” Joyce said. “They decided that they could not fully support our community and that’s not acceptable.”
Compromise package renews transgender inclusion debate
The decision to go with a compromise package wasn’t an easy one, Council members and advocates tell me. Allies on Council, like Kinsey, Lyles and Austin, spoke directly on the dais about their own discomfort, Kinsey becoming clearly emotional and Austin saying his support came with “great trepidation.”
“I really hoped we had the political will and the political power to be more progressive,” Austin said from the dais. “We thought we had that earlier today and that changed quite a bit.”
The compromise stripping out the bathrooms had been floated by Barnes the week before the meeting. Leaders with the coalition say they didn’t back the compromise version, preferring instead the original, fully inclusive package. Come the night of the vote, it was Lyles who offered the amendment.
It passed 9-2, with Autry and LaWana Mayfield voting against it — votes that carried over to the final 6-5 tally.
“I will not and I cannot support an amendment that does not protect all of our citizens,” Mayfield said from the dais.
Both Autry and Mayfield have taken heat from some members of the community who think it was their action that prevented at least some protections from moving forward.
Both have stood by their votes.
Autry has said he’s received more positive feedback than negative. “However,” he added, “the ones who have responded have been pretty disappointing, but I’m comfortable with my position and if faced with the same options tonight, I would do the same thing. In matters of civil rights, who sould be excluded?”
The compromise version and the final vote have re-opened an old, longstanding debate in the LGBT community on how best to move forward with fully inclusive protections for LGB and T community members.
The last major debate on the topic came in 2007, when a version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which excluded protections for transgender people was pushed by Congressman Barney Frank and the Human Rights Campaign. A lot has changed since that time, with groups like HRC coming out in full support for complete trans inclusion. But the debate has still simmered, occasionally bubbling to the surface as it has these past few weeks in Charlotte.
Paige Dula, founder of transgender support group Genderlines and a coalition leader, said the debate is reminiscent of 2007.
“I don’t think it’s quite as divisive as it was with ENDA, but the conversation has been fairly heated,” she said.
Some members of the community have said the coalition and Council should have moved forward with the compromise package, a position Dula disagrees with.
“I would have been extremely irate if the compromise package would have passed,” she said. “It would have left all the transgender people in Charlotte and the surrounding areas behind. It would have been very unlikely for us to get back in and change the language anytime in the near future.”
David Lari, a longtime community activist, disagrees and thinks an incremental approach would have worked better. He wouldn’t have been in favor of a proposal that completely excluded transgender people, but saw some value in the compromise version.
“The amended proposal still had language in there that was all-inclusive,” he said. “It still had gender identity and gender expression language even in the amended proposal, so I think it’s been mischaracterized that it was leaving transgender people behind when it actually would have provided some incremental improvements for transgender people as well as the rest of the LGBT community. So, if a transgender person gets kicked out of a cab, they are going to probably wish we had gone with that incremental step.”
But Dula insisted that it is restrooms which signify one of the most significant concerns for transgender people.
“It’s a major consideration for us,” she said. “While it might be a smaller concern for the gay and lesbian side of the community, it’s definitely not a small consideration for the transgender community.”
Dula added, “That’s an area where transgender people are discriminated against possibly the most and experience a lot of violence as well. I, myself, have experienced near violence in a bathroom before, due to being transgender.”
And it’s those kinds of differences that have prompted other debate in the community, too, with some believing the LGB and T protections should have been separated out from the beginning.
“I honestly think that this would have been a better fight from the LGBT community perspective if the LGB portion was done in one phase and the T portion taken care of in another,” said community member Jon Repp. “I don’t necessarily think my approach would be leaving people behind.”
Repp thinks LGB and T people face different and unique challenges.
“The community as a whole can’t move forward as a whole because they each face different challenges and it’s incredibly complex to move all of that at once,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit of wrong thinking to think you can move the whole thing at once.”
Dula and other transgender people I spoke to the night of the vote and in the days following all believe the compromise version was problematic.
“I didn’t think that made sense at all,” said Andraya Williams, a transgender student who was harassed last year after using the restroom on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College. “I felt as though they should have passed the whole bill, bathrooms included.”
Dula said the mere presence of a debate on trans inclusion itself signifies the need for more education — both for the broader community and inside the LGB community.
“I think it’s something we can move past as a community eventually with a little bit of education,” she said.
Joyce, too, thinks LGB community members will need to learn more in order to become better allies.
“We need to make sure that lesbian, gay and bisexual cisgender people are allies of the transgender community and can advocate for them in a way that helps straight cisgender allies understand the needs of the community so the bathroom issue won’t be a problem when it comes up again,” he said. “It will come up again very soon, so we have a relatively short time period to get our community on board, as well as introduce the broader community to transgender people. These people are a part of our community and deserve protection just like everybody else.”
Next steps turn toward election
Coalition leaders and elected officials all agree on the need for more education. Dula is already in the thick of planning it, with a social mixer to bring together transgender and LGB people slated for March 27.
At the same time, everyone agrees that attention, time, effort and energy must turn to this fall’s city elections.
“It starts at the ballot box,” Autry said. “Continue outreach, focusing on the election, talking to candidates, quizzing them, looking at their backgrounds.”
Several positions on Council will open up — at least two members will depart to run for mayor. Advocates are hopeful they’ll be able to back candidates who can be stronger, more stalwart allies — with hopes of bringing the non-discrimination ordinances back to a new Council in December or early next year.
“The LGBT Democrats and organizations like ours, MeckPAC included, will do our best on the political side of things, campaigning and identifying candidates and getting the two solid LGBT supporters on Council that we need,” Joyce said.
Joyce also wants to hold accountable local Democrats — the majority on Council — who didn’t stand in full solidarity.
“We have a clear indication of who are not our allies and we can’t support them,” he said. “As members of the Democratic Party, they know our party platform. The platform is for equality for LGBT civil rights. They stood against our platform. We’re going to ask the Democratic Party how they can choose to support people who can’t support our platform.”
Joyce called Barnes’ and Phipps’ votes, in particular, an “outrage.”
“There’s no reason for them not to support the LGBT community,” he said. “They voted against the morals of our party. I think that reflects the place where our city is on progressive issues. We like to see our city as a progressive city in the New South, but as our state has moved further to the right, I think we have to realize what the reality is for Charlotte.”
That reality necessitates more education and increased civic involvement, Joyce insisted.
“I think that the LGBT community should understand the importance of being politically active,” he said. “It’s easy to say that politics is stacked against us and we have no reason to be involved, but, as we see, every vote counts.”
Joyce said community members will have to be involved in the upcoming elections — particularly the primary election in September, where traditionally low voter turnout means increased clout for LGBT and ally voters.
“We have to be excited about LGBT friendly local elections and local representatives, because these are the people who vote as they did on [March 2] on things that will directly affect our lives every day,” he said.
Austin, too, agrees the election will be important, but he also wants to see a more comprehensive strategy that includes community education.
“As I said in my statement from the dais, this is a civil rights revolution for 2015,” he said. “In any war or revolution, you’re going to lose a few battles. … Let’s retreat, let’s think of our next steps and our strategy moving forward.” : :