After failing to pass a non-discrimination ordinance in March of last year, Charlotte remains one of the largest cities in the country not to have full LGBT protections in place for its citizens. That may soon change.
Newly-elected mayor Jennifer Roberts has called for a forum to take place Feb. 1 so the public can discuss the ordinance, tentatively scheduled to be taken up for a vote by Charlotte City Council on Feb. 8, just one week later. The ordinance would add sexual orientation and identity to protected categories in public accommodations, passenger vehicles for hire and commercial contracting through the city.
The forum on Feb. 1 will be convened at the mayor’s request by the Charlotte Community Relations Committee and the Community Building Initiative.
“Mayor Roberts has asked the Charlotte Community Relations Committee and the Community Building Initiative to convene a forum for the citizens of Charlotte who want to learn more about the LGBTQ Community and Charlotte’s Non-Discrimination Ordinances. The forum is intended to be educational and informative and allow Charlotte citizens to talk with one another about what’s at stake with these ordinances and how they will affect our lives,” said The Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) in a statement on a Facebook event page to announce and help promote both the forum and the upcoming vote.
Mayor Roberts mentioned the issue during her swearing in speech on Dec. 7, saying, “I will work with council to ensure non-discrimination for our LGBT community.” It also came up during her run against Republican candidate Edwin Peacock, when, during a debate, Peacock called the non-discrimination ordinance “a very minor issue we cannot let ourselves get distracted by.”
“Discrimination is not a minor issue,” Roberts shot back. She later campaigned on the moment, citing it as a key difference between the two.
The ordinance appears to have a better chance at passing this time out, with two at-large council members who voted against the full LGBT non-discrimination ordinance, Michael Barnes and David Howard, exiting during the same Dec. 7 meeting. Howard voted for a compromised package, stripping out protections for transgender individuals to use public restrooms matching their gender identity. Barnes allegedly told another Council member that he would vote for a compromised package removing those same public accommodations affecting restrooms, yet voted against it.
While the increased likelihood of the ordinance passing has supporters in high spirits, it is also likely the public debate will feature some of the same anti-transgender rhetoric heard last year. It is a fear-based response that will have to be countered by education and conversation, making the forum an important first step back into the contentious issue.
“It is our job as a community to have that conversation, and to help assist and educate, because obviously we face a huge obstacle with the bathroom issue,” said Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce President Chad Sevearance-Turner. “And it was completely made into a bathroom issue, and the only way you can overcome that is to get people to talk about it, getting them to understand the situation. Do they know a trans person? Do they know an LGBT person at all? And making it personal for them, instead of making it a faith issue, or being an issue of what they feel is moral or ethical. Because it just comes down to a commonsense issue. It’s not a Democrat or a Republican, or an LGBT or a straight, issue. It’s just commonsense for someone to use the restroom in which they identify with.”
Sevearance-Turner points out that while the chamber does not formerly endorse persons or parties, they will endorse policy “if it has a great business case.”
“This time around, luckily, we have a wonderful mayor who is willing to have community conversations leading up to the ordinance,” he added. “And I think that that will help in allowing people to hear both sides and make educated decisions concerning whether or not they support the ordinance.”
Even if the ordinance is passed by Charlotte City Council, the fight may continue. The Charlotte Business Journal has reported that passing the ordinance could spark a fight with the General Assembly.
Writer Erik Spanberg reports that a Republican strategist told him that, “based on informal discussions, state lawmakers would take a long look at overturning any such measure.”
Spanberg goes on to say that State Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenberg), who was a member of the county commissioners board with Roberts from 2004 to 2008, told him the ordinance was “an extremely divisive thing,” which he believes most Charlotteans oppose. Bishop also stated, “I hope cooler heads prevail and they’ll decide not to go down this path.”
Examples of LGBT discrimination are not tracked by the city, as citizens have no way of reporting activity that is not illegal. A website, which can be found at charlotteequality.strikingly.com, was set up by a group called the Charlotte Non-Discrimination Ordinance Coalition where those who have experienced discrimination can share their stories.
The Charlotte Business Journal also reports that Scott Bishop, who lives in Charlotte and serves on the national board of the Human Rights Campaign, along with other LGBT rights activists, reached out to uncover stories of housing and employment discrimination in the city and received over 140 testimonials of such treatment. He added that another survey is planned before council reconsiders the ordinance.