Charlotte advocate Roberta Dunn (right) received the Charlotte region Equality Champion Award on Nov. 13.
Roberta Dunn has forged a path for herself as a trusted leader and advocate for LGBT people in Charlotte. Yet, she says she never intended or planned on becoming an activist, Dunn simply couldn’t help herself. After years of work in Charlotte’s transgender and larger LGBT community, Dunn’s activism was recognized by Equality North Carolina among the work of five other Carolina LGBT and straight ally leaders.
The Equality Champion Award, presented for the first time this year by Equality NC to six leaders across the state, seeks to recognize the hard work of community activists and advocates working for change in their local communities. Dunn received the Charlotte region Equality Champion Award for her work with local organizations and for successfully making important inroads with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Other award winners included: Ellen W. Gerber (Triad), the Rev. Joe Hoffman and Noel Nickle (Western), Aaron Lucier (Eastern) and Joshua Lee Weaver (Triangle). [For more about each of the award winners, see our past coverage, “Equality NC recognizes 2010 Equality Champions.”]
More than five years ago, Dunn came to the Charlotte area and soon became active with Kappa Beta, a transgender support and social group now known as Carolina Transgender Society. She also later joined another transgender group, the Charlotte Gender Alliance.
But what first started out as simple and occasional volunteer work soon turned into full-blown political advocacy. The debate over the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in 2007 was the initial spark to Dunn’s political involvement. That year, legislators in the U.S. House decided to cut language that would have protected employees on the basis of gender identity. Dunn decided to join Charlotte’s local Human Rights Campaign steering committee. Following pro-transgender public restroom accommodations being made in Washington, D.C., Dunn wanted to bring something similar to the Queen City. She soon teamed up with the Mecklenburg Gay & Lesbian Political Action Committee (MeckPAC). [Ed. Note – This writer is a MeckPAC steering committee member.]
“None of this would have been possible without MeckPAC,” Dunn says.
The work by the group and its members have led to many successes, Dunn adds, but she also says there have been political let-downs in Charlotte. Dunn says it was particularly difficult to deal personally with the city’s decision to enact non-discrimination policies excluding transgender people. More devastating, however, was the murder of transgender Charlottean Toni Alston.
Alston’s April murder and the public follow-up by police and media immediately shifted Dunn’s focus away from city policies. Her passion for a woman she never met, but many believe was the victim of a hate crime, is immediately apparent. Through advocating for Alston, Dunn said she has come to feel like she knew Alston in life.
Dunn says she had three goals related to Alston’s murder. The first was to educate the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department about the language they and the media used to describe Alston, including usually derogatory terms like “alternative lifestyle” and “crossdresser.” Second, Dunn wanted the local police to create an LGBT liaison office, to serve as a go-between for police officials and LGBT community members. Finally, she wanted Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe to hold an open forum with the community. All three goals have been accomplished – the chief held his forum at the Lesbian & Gay Community Center on Oct. 12. Dunn feels progress with the police department is at least as good or even better than she could have expected.
Despite her already many accomplishments, Dunn has no intention of slowing down and expects to have a hand in effecting even more progress in Charlotte. She plans on continuing conversations with the police department and other city and county leaders – a task that might be easier after her unanimous election to the Lesbian & Gay Community Center Board of Trustees on Wednesday, Nov. 10.
Of the board’s decision to bring her on, Dunn says in her trademark humble style, “It’s a phenomenal honor.”
— Matt Comer contributed.