From left to right: Madeleine Roberts, Joni Madison and Rev. Fred Davie

North Carolina is known for a lot of things — from its breathtaking mountain vistas to its sandy shores, and the myriad of cities and small towns in between. The state has a distinguished film industry and a long history of political drama. Celebrities like Andy Griffith, Michael Jordan, Nina Simone, Clay Aiken and even the Vanderbilts have all called this place home. The latter built the nation’s largest private residence here. 

The geographical and political spectrum of North Carolina often mirrors the experiences and stories of its LGBTQ residents and has its fingerprints on the national movement for equal rights. 

Progressive havens have existed for years in Asheville, the Triangle and even Charlotte, but they have often been marred by the actions and words of folks like Jesse Helms and Franklin Graham, or the sweeping anti-LGBTQ House Bill 2, known as HB2 or the Charlotte bathroom bill. 

That environment, however, might have also led to a surprising number of North Carolinians working at the national level, organizing for the equal treatment of LGBTQ people. According to Madeleine Roberts, the deputy press secretary for Human Rights Campaign (HRC), “I feel like (growing up here) did prepare me to do this work, because North Carolina is such a diverse state in every way.”  

At the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization in the country, there has been a surprising trend in the number of North Carolina natives working for HRC. “We used to joke that we need a North Carolina employee resource group,” says Roberts. “There are a lot of us doing this LGBTQ work.” 

Roberts, who uses they/them pronouns, moved to North Carolina at the age of four and returned to the state to work remotely at the beginning of the pandemic. “I think we’re really a great state,” they said. Speaking of HB2, they noted that, “we are so much better than that as a state, and the people who live here are not that. Knowing that really makes me love this state.” They note that the diversity perhaps taught them to better craft a message that can reach everyone, from rural to progressive counties across the country. 

Roberts, a graduate of Davidson College, has been with HRC since 2017, when they started as a communications assistant after working at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

While many others at the organization have hailed from North Carolina over the years, most notable today are Joni Madison, chief operating officer and chief of staff, and Don Kiser, the organization’s long-time creative director. 

In a qnotes interview with former HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch, she said “there have been so many brave souls that have done real battle in North Carolina.” The work shows up in other ways, too. 

For instance, Kiser’s coast-to-coast marketing of the now ubiquitous HRC logo, the blue square with two yellow bars, has allowed millions of LGBTQ Americans and allies to show their support for equality. According to HRC, the logo was the final touch on a complete reorganization in 1995 and its square design was determined by Kiser’s research which discovered that it would cost just pennies to produce, compared with the traditional rectangular bumper sticker. “Before long, the HRC logo was as visible at pride celebrations and other LGBTQ events as the iconic rainbow flag.” He also led the organization in opening HRC “Action Centers”, promoting sociopolitical action by community members nationwide. 

Before joining the staff at HRC in 2016, Joni Madison was a volunteer leader for 15 years, eventually serving as the co-chair of the HRC’s board of directors and executive director search committee. Today, she oversees and manages all operations, business functions and board relations, as well as manage HRC’s finance, human resources, diversity, general counsel, facilities and administrative functions. In an interview with McKinney, the national advertising agency with offices in Durham, N.C. where she served as COO for more than a decade before joining HRC, Madison said “when we think of home and our idea of home, what we long for is North Carolina.” 

A History of Activism

In the 1970s, gay liberation was spreading across the United States following the Stonewall Uprising. According to David Hooper Schultz, the Southeastern Gay Conferences, started by students of the Carolina Gay Association in 1976, “changed the Southeast by organizing one of the first public and open spaces for out gay men and lesbians to congregate.” Schultz’ master’s thesis from the University of Mississippi examined public history’s impact on LGBTQ+ southerners. “Rather than being ‘lonely hunters’ without political or social goals, queer southerners were in fact developing tactics to extend their rights and stake their claim to their homes in the Southeast,” states Schultz. 

One cannot cover the activist history of North Carolinians without mentioning Mandy Carter. While born in New York, Carter was one of six co-founders of Southerners On New Ground (SONG) and is the co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition — two organizations with strong N.C. roots. She has been here since 1982 and has, in the words of BLK writer Frankie Lennon, been “one of the few highly placed African American lesbians,” waging war against homophobia and organizing for racial justice and LGBTQ rights across the South. Other organizations, like Campus Pride and Faith in America, Inc. are based here in the state, not to mention the state-wide and regional equality organizations.  

While this list in no way captures everyone, we have pulled together a quick look at other LGBTQ notables hailing from the Tarheel State. 

Andrea Long Chu, born in Chapel Hill, N.C., is a writer and critic on gender and culture. Her essay “On Liking Women” which was published in 2018 has been praised as “launching the ‘second wave’ of trans studies.” She has written for Boston Review, New York Times, Artforum, Transgender Studies Quarterly, among others and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

James Credle, born in Mesic, N.C., is the former assistant dean of students at Rutgers University-Newark. A highly decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime LGBTQ activist, he helped found the National Association of Black and White Men Together, the Newark LGBTQ Center and served on the board of the Newark Pride Alliance. He still lives in Newark, N.J.

Jimmy Creech, born in Goldsboro, N.C., gained national attention when, after celebrating the holy union of two men in Chapel Hill, N.C., he was found guilty of “disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church” and was withdrawn from the ordination. Since then, he has traveled the country speaking about human and civil rights for LGBTQ people and was the chairperson of the board of directors of Soulforce, Inc. from 2000 to 2005. Creech helped create Faith in America with Mitchell Gold, a nonprofit that educates people about the harm of religious bigotry on LGBTQ people. In 2009, he was one of twenty-four activists who gathered in Dallas, Texas to discuss the immediate need for full equality for LGBTQ people the and coauthor of The Dallas Principles, a call to action intended to guide the civil rights movement. 

Fred Davie, born in Belmont, N.C., has worked for the New York City Board of Education, former NYC Mayor Dinkins and served on the White House Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under former President Barack Obama. He was also part of Obama’s campaign and transition team in 2008. Davie, who is married to SAGE Chief Executive Officer Michael Adams said he was fortunate to have friends and family members who were part of the LGBTQ community when growing up. In an interview with Gay Star News, Davie said, “I found my liberation as an African-American man, as a gay man and as a person who grew up with modest means in liberation theologies and other social critique.” Today, Davie lives in New York and is the Executive Vice President of Union Theological Seminary. 

Carter Heyward, born in Charlotte, N.C., is a feminist theologian and retired priest from the Episcopal Church. In 1974, she was one of the Philadelphia Eleven whose ordinations paved the way for the recognition of women as priests. Today, she is the founder and board member of Free Rein, a therapeutic horseback riding center in the mountains of North Carolina. 

Justin Lee grew up in Raleigh, where he started the Gay Christian Network, the world’s largest LGBTQ Christian advocacy organization. He is the author of “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate” and “Talking Across the Divide.” Today, he lives in Orlando, Fla. where he heads Nuance Ministries and makes videos and blogs on a variety of topics for his website, GeekyJustin.com. 

Toni Newman, born in Jacksonville, N.C., is an author and advocate for sex workers’ rights. Her book “I Rise – The Transformation of Toni Newman” was nominated for multiple Lambda Literary Awards and became the basis for a short film in 2017. Newman also worked with Equality California as a strategic fundraiser, volunteer recruiter and legislative aide. Today, she lives in San Francisco where she is the interim executive director of LYRIC, one of the first and largest LGBTQ youth centers in the country. 

Jacob Tobia, born in Raleigh, N.C., has expanded understanding of gender through their work as an actor, writer, producer and author. After being interviewed by Laverne Cox as part of MTV’s “The T Word” and profiled in a one-hour episode of “True Life: I’m Genderqueer,” Tobia published “Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story.” The book is now being adapted into a forthcoming TV series for Showtime. Today, Tobia lives in Los Angeles and previously worked at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. 

Others From Our Past

Blake Brockington (1996-2015) was born in Charleston, S.C. but moved to Charlotte at the age of 12. Brockington received attention as the first openly transgender high school homecoming king and advocated for LGBTQ youth, the transgender community and against police brutality until his suicide in 2015. Memorial services were held across North Carolina and in cities like Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. 

Mabel Hampton (1902-1989), born in Winston-Salem, N.C., was a lesbian activist and dancer during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to her philanthropy to LGBTQ organizations, Hampton marched in the first National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington and appeared in the films “Silent Pioneers” and “Before Stonewall.”

Michael Lynch (1944-1991), born in Harnett County, N.C., made a lasting impact on AIDS education and support. He is noted with pioneering “gay studies” in Canadian academia, helping launch several HIV/AIDS organizations in Toronto and for his writing on the HIV epidemic and the LGBTQ community throughout the 1980s. 

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was born in Baltimore, Md. but was raised by her grandparents in Durham, N.C. As an attorney, Murray argued for civil rights and women’s rights and wrote “States’ Laws on Race and Color” in 1950. Thurgood Marshall called the book, the “bible” on the civil rights movement. She was the co-founder of the National Organization for Women and later became an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. The Charlotte LGBTQ Bar Association is named after Murray. 

Johnnie Phelps (1922-1997), born in North Carolina, was a member of the first Women’s Army Corps during World War II and later the National Organization for Women. She chaired the California Lesbian Task Force and spearheaded protests in defense of eight female crew members on the USS Norton Sound who were charged with “homosexual misconduct” in 1980. 

Aimee Stephens (1960-2020), born in Fayetteville, N.C., was added to the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument last year following her legal battle against a Detroit funeral home where she served as director before being fired for being transgender. Stephens died just a month before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Title VII protections extends to LGBTQ people. 

A Sense of Place

University of Mississippi Professor and essayist Jaime Harker says, that “’Sense of place’ has often been a traditional way of understanding the distinctiveness of the south, but feminist and queer geographers have shown that space is anything but natural; the organization and imagination of space is deeply implicated in existing power structures and ideologies.” 

Some might say “it’s in the water”, but perhaps there is something more. The intersection of these ideologies, not to mention, living in a state of beautiful diversity and possibility may just have something to do with North Carolinians leading the way for LGBTQ equality. Growing up in this place that has such a varied political past, a Southern state – but somewhat different than the cliché, rich with heritage and faith. 

According to the state’s tourism website, VisitNC.com, “When you visit the incredible beauty of North Carolina, you’ll be transformed back into your best self.” LGBTQ people here are sharing that transformation as far as you can see from those beautiful state vistas and beyond.

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