CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Organizers of TEDxCharlotte, a popular local version of the international speakers series, are defending their choice of two presenters with ties to anti-LGBT organizations.
“What we don’t do is advocate on issues,” TEDxCharlotte organizer Winn Maddrey said Friday. “We don’t have a stance and to a certain degree in the background we don’t do an in-depth review of who is John Smith or Jane Smith associated with.”
The speakers series, whose motto is “Ideas Worth Spreading,” has become a popular event producing new ideas and inspiring presentations.
They announced their slate of speakers for their October event this week.
Among the speakers are John Austin, a former employee of the Christian group Young Life for 28 years, and Reggie Nious, also a former Young Life leader and executive director of The King’s Kitchen. Austin and Nious will present together a talk on a public service project they are organizing in the community.
Groups have anti-LGBT policies, positions
Young Life is widely known for their discriminatory policies forbidding LGBT staff and volunteers. Additionally, the group believes that the “homosexual lifestyle and practice” is “clearly not in accord with God’s creation purposes,” and says the lives and love of LGBT people are a “rejection of the divine creation purpose to reflect the glory of God.”
The King’s Kitchen was founded by Jim Noble, of the eponymous Noble’s Restaurants and pastor of Restoring Place Church. Noble also owns and operates Charlotte’s Rooster’s restaurants and Winston-Salem’s Noble’s Grille.
Noble was a signatory to a letter in late February opposed to Charlotte’s package of LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances, including a public accommodations ordinance which would have prevented businesses, including restaurants, from discriminating against patrons on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, among other characteristics.
The letter — a pretty much word-for-word copy of a legal memo drafted by the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom — repeated homophobic and transphobic scare tactics, falsely linking transgender people and others in the LGB community to sexual predation.
Noble’s views on homosexuality are widely known. In a 2013 news feature, writer Jeff Chu recounts Noble having a large placard at The King’s Kitchen, putting HIV-positive people and LGBT people in a long list of those “Wanted: For the Kingdom of God.” Others in the list include “pimps,” “gangbangers,” “shoplifters, “demon-possessed” and “those who are unsaved and cursed by witchcraft.”
Noble told Chu: “Some of these are lifestyle choices. Some are afflictions. Doesn’t make a difference. People in life go through tough times. They need help.”
In the article, Chu recounts Nious’ reaction to the anti-gay placard: “Later, after Noble leaves for a meeting, Reggie Nious, sits down,” Chu wrote. “For 18 years, he worked for the Christian ministry Young Life, and a month ago, Noble hired him to be executive director of the King’s Kitchen. Nious sighs and slides the poster back behind the banquette.”
Nious is quoted: “[Noble] still loves his food, but he loves Jesus more. And he loves that sign. But it scares half the people in this restaurant.”
TEDx says it is ‘apolitical’
In response to questions on Twitter from this writer, the official TEDxCharlotte handle said: “TEDxCharlotte is apolitical; talks are neither political nor religious. Chosen by presentation skills and compelling idea.”
.@themattcomer TEDxCharlotte is apolitical; talks are neither political nor religious.Chosen by presentation skills and compelling idea.
— TEDxCharlotte (@TEDxCharlotte) June 5, 2015
In a later phone interview, organizer Maddrey demurred when pressed on whether the same “apolitical” standard would apply to chosen speakers associated with white supremacist, sexist, Islamophobic or other xenophobic groups.
“Well, that’s a little taken out of context,” Maddrey said.
Pressed further, Maddrey said concerns for these kinds of speakers with potentially problematic connections would “work itself out in the curation process.”
“We are choosing to be apolitical across the board,” Maddrey said. “Part of the answer on the white supremacist thing is, it depends. I think with that curation notion, we go, ‘Okay, wait a second now. We chose them based on a topic without consideration of their background and now something else has come to light and we need to step back from our process and say, okay, this may be an exception, it may not be an exception, but let’s review that.”
Asked if he and the organizing committee would review Austin’s and Nious’ place in the line-up, Maddrey replied: “I don’t know. It’s an interesting question you’ve raised that as a volunteer organization, I think I will go to the organizing committee and we will have a conversation about these types of exceptions.”
Maddrey added: “For now, we are going forward with the slate we chose based on the process we use.”
In a follow-up by email, Maddrey wrote: “TEDxCharlotte does not promote or advocate any form of exclusion. During our audition process, we did not hear any exclusionary language towards any group from anyone who auditioned. In the specific examples of King’s Kitchen and Young Life, these organizations and the attributed views were not any part of the audition. We work to be inclusive and to have a slate of speakers that contribute to the TED community of ideas worth sharing.”
Maddrey also stressed that the event’s goal was to stimulate provocative conversation.
“We are putting on a production,” Maddrey explained. “With the nature of our theme, we want to put people on the stage who will push the audience and share information. Frankly, we want people to walk away and go, ‘I didn’t know about that. I didn’t know that was going on in Charlotte. I never thought of things in that way.’ We want to be stimulating around ideas and provocative in a certain way. That’s the goal of putting together, hopefully, a diverse audience that has a variety of points of view on various things. That’s the way we approach it.”
Maddrey said the local TED conference has featured LGBT-identified speakers in the past.