It’s curious that we call our elected officials “leaders,” because the truth of the matter is that most of them rarely, if ever, actually lead on anything. At least, that’s how it seems when it comes to matters of equality and civil rights.
Whether we speak of abolition, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, our own movement for LGBT equality or any other campaign for social change, one plot-line in our great American story remains the same: elected officials’ outspokenness on progress comes only after decades of work from citizens and activists.
In our story this issue, “Straight ally,” Charlotte Coalition of Social Justice executive director Nyala Hunt makes a valid observation: “Charlotte’s history is very much top-down leadership. People at the top decide change needs to happen and they determine how it will happen.”
The sad part about this style of so-called “leadership” is that those folks “at the top” rarely come to the same conclusions as those they serve — conclusions made years ago at the bottom that somehow never managed to rise into the agendas of those at the top.
This issue, we also report on Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx’s appearance at the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund’s third annual luncheon. It’s the first time the Fund has hosted any elected leader at their function and the first time in at least a decade that a sitting Charlotte mayor has addressed an LGBT group. Along with applauding the city manager’s recent decision to add “sexual orientation” to city non-discrimination policies, Foxx — along with other attending elected officials including Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts, Commissioner Dan Murrey and City Councilmember Patsy Kinsey — should be commended for taking the time to attend.
At the same time, we should caution ourselves against becoming an echo chamber of “yes” men and women. The city has made few positive steps forward, and there is much more to be done — much, much more that will require a real force of political courage.
At the luncheon, Foxx addressed the city’s recent policy changes.
“I look back at the history of this discussion of a policy change that says discriminating against people based on sexual orientation is wrong and I have to say that we had more courage to help propel our city manager to make that policy change because of changes that had happened earlier,” Foxx said. “A few years earlier, the county commission was embroiled in a heated debate about saying sexual orientation-based discrimination is wrong. They made the right decision and their decision created the courage for the city to do the same.”
Really? Mecklenburg County officials made their change in 2005, and they did so publicly, holding a vote on the matter in a commissioners’ meeting. They did the same again in 2009, when they held a public vote on extending benefits to domestic partners of county employees. Are we to believe that it took five years for city council members to build up the courage to walk over to their city manager’s office and request a change behind closed doors?
I’m calling bullshit.
For years, members of the largely Democratic Charlotte City Council have promised the LGBT community an inclusive non-discrimination policy and domestic partner benefits. For years, those same elected officials said they’d be more than willing to help make the change, but that it just wasn’t feasible because Republican Mayor Pat McCrory would simply veto it. We bought their empty promises time and time again. We handed them our money and our votes time and time again. What has our blind support gotten us? An incomplete, impermanent policy that can be changed at any moment by any current or future city manager.
Where were those elected officials, who said they were our friends, once McCrory was gone? When there was no more obstacle standing in their way, why didn’t they have the “courage” to bring up the matter at a council meeting, and create a more permanent, inclusive change? After all, they’d been so supportive for years and years before.
The answer is simple, really. Elected officials, especially in Charlotte it seems, aren’t “leaders” on our issues and most of them will never have the “courage” to make any progressive change unless they are pushed and pushed hard. That’s why an organized, grassroots base is so critical to the success of any movement for social or civil rights change. It’s something the Queen City is lacking.
Charlotte’s LGBT community should hold these officials accountable, remind them of their promises from years past and keep pushing for a real solution. Our city has taken a baby step forward. Does our community have the foresight and personal conviction to continue these steps forward and push for the leap other cities and towns in North Carolina have already taken? : :