CHARLOTTE — On Dec. 15, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners made an historic decision to offer health and leave benefits to same-sex partners of county employees. With a party line, 6-3 vote, county commissioners made Mecklenburg the seventh and largest North Carolina jurisdiction to offer such benefits. Without surprise, the positive action came with plenty of opposition, conflict and controversy.
At the meeting, community members spoke both in favor and against the proposal. When commissioners took over debate, Democrat Vilma Leake spoke of her son who died from AIDS in 1993. After her passionate and personal speech, Republican Commissioner Bill James leaned over and asked, “Your son was a homo, really?”
James’ comments at the meeting and to media in the days following caused a swirl of controversy, at times, taking over media coverage of what should have been a positive story.
At press time, a potential reprimand of James’ actions was being discussed. County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts told Q-Notes she’s uncertain what a possible reprimand would look like.
“I’m not sure what real disciplinary action we could take … what I think we can do is some kind of reprimand,” she said. “I’ve got to think about the terminology to be used. We can make some kind of statement that clearly indicates this type of behavior — in terms of calling names in the public, on the microphone after a fellow commissioner has been so passionate and emotional — is inappropriate and sets a bad example and we will not tolerate it. That is the kind of thing we can do.”
Roberts added, “There are other terms — rebuke, reprimand. I’m not sure calling it something different has any different, practical effect.”
Area LGBT youth organizations area demanding such a reprimand. The national Campus Pride, based in Charlotte, and Time Out Youth issued a joint statement two days after the commission’s meeting.
“Commissioner Bill James’ remarks are nothing but intolerant and harmful to our area youth,” said Steve Bentley, executive director of Time Out Youth. “There is no reason why a young LGBTQ person should have to hear such disdain and hateful rhetoric from a public official who is elected to represent them.”
Time Out Youth, founded in the early 1990s, is a support, services and advocacy organization for LGBT youth ages 13-23.
Bentley added, “There are young people who are victims of depression and even suicide because of hateful slurs and comments like that of Commissioner James. Elected leaders are expected to be positive role models for our youth. We need to hold Commissioner James accountable for his actions.”
Campus Pride’s Shane Windmeyer called James’ actions “abhorrent” and said “fair minded citizens believe that there’s no place for this kind of bigotry.” He echoed others’ calls for James to apologize to Leake, something James has said he won’t do.
The county’s move to extend benefits brings increased attention to Charlotte’s city council, which is poised to take up similar discussions in the new year.
Despite the controversy, Roberts believes her body’s actions will make it easier for city leaders to move forward with extending similar benefits and amending the city’s non-discrimination policies.
Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx agrees. “Clearly the county’s actions have opened a door, and I think you’ll see the council moving very quickly to set in motion the consideration process,” he said.
Although it is possible the increased attention to LGBT issues in the Queen City could turn out greater opposition in the future, Foxx thinks the city council’s discussions will go more smoothly than those at the county level.
“I think that some of the comments by some of our elected officials who opposed the benefits issue created a different conversation about how tolerant this community is and how tolerant it should be,” Foxx said. “I feel very confident that our council has the ability to have a rational discussion about these issues and focus on what we all want to focus on, which is competitiveness and there is clearly a link between these issues and attracting talented people to our area.”
Throughout the almost year-long discussion over the county’s new benefits policy, Roberts argued inclusive policies will help Charlotte and Mecklenburg County compete with the private sector. She said feedback since the Dec. 15 meeting has proven her right.
“I have gotten a number of emails from people who are with companies that offer [domestic partner benefits] — both gay and straight folks who say their companies long ago decided that it helped them attract the best work force and let people know they care and are fair,” she said. “They know they are not going to be discriminated against in the workplace.”
City Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess has long been among the most outspoken and visible city leaders supporting Charlotte’s LGBT community. She assures the city is making plans now to address these issues soon.
“I expect we’ll do something,” Burgess said. “That has been the plan all along. I have talked to [Foxx] about the schedule to approach this. We are working on it, so I think something will happen. I’m not sure exactly when.”
Domestic partner benefits will likely continue to be a hot-button issue, but the city will also need to consider amendments to its employee non-discrimination policies which do not include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender-identity. Mecklenburg County policies presently include sexual orientation.
Both Foxx and Burgess are committed to adding sexual orientation to the city’s non-discrimination policy but have been vague on their positions regarding inclusion of gender-identity.
“We want to do what we can get passed,” Burgess said. “We’ll see how far we can go with that.”
In a Q&A with Q-Notes after the election, Foxx said he’d be willing to look into the inclusion.
“I’d have to dig a little more into the human resources aspects of that to understand the extent to which it isn’t covered by sexual orientation,” he said.
The council’s consideration of new policies should be made easier by the absence of longtime mayor Pat McCrory, who opposed inclusive changes in the city’s employment or benefits practices.
Six other jurisdictions in North Carolina offer domestic partner benefits. Thirteen local governments include sexual orientation in their employee non-discrimination policies; four also protect employees on the basis of gender-identity.