‘Maintaining the status quo’

Advocates gear up for tough legislative session

North Carolina’s General Assembly reconvenes at the state Legislative Building in Raleigh on Jan. 26. With the opening of a new session comes the possibility of anti-LGBT legislation.
Photo Credit: Dave Crosby, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

RALEIGH — The once-optimistic vision of progress in North Carolina came to a screeching halt for many LGBT Tar Heels following November’s midterm elections. For the first time in a century, Republicans took control of both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly. No doubt, Republicans across the state are happy to be back in power, but at what cost to LGBT people will their victory come?

Though Republicans in North Carolina haven’t been the only threat to equality and progress — there are plenty of anti-LGBT Democrats to be found — the GOP has nonetheless been home to some of the most ardent anti-equality proponents this state has ever seen. Year-after-year, Republicans in the state House and Senate have led the push for an anti-LGBT, anti-family constitutional amendment that would ban recognition of same-sex marriage. Leading Republicans, like former House Minority Leader Paul Stam (R-Wake) stood firmly opposed to landmark legislation like 2009’s School Violence Prevention Act (SVPA) and Healthy Youth Act (HYA), going so far as to insinuate a connection between LGBT people and pedophilia and denouncing gays as a danger to children while in the presence of Sen. Julia Boseman (D-Hanover), at the time the state’s first and only openly gay or lesbian member of the General Assembly.

Equality North Carolina Executive Director Ian Palmquist says LGBT community members should expect movement on the constitutional amendment this year.

“We’ll have to work harder than ever before to stop it,” he tells qnotes.

Palmquist’s group, which has for seven years held the amendment at bay, has planned to hold their annual Day of Action early this year. The event will be held on Feb. 15.

“We wanted to make sure we had our supporters there early in the legislative session this year to get ahead of any anti-equality legislation,” he says.

This year’s session starts Jan. 26. But, even before either chamber’s leaders had the chance to bang their gavels, the controversy had already begun.

GOP priorities

A little over a month before November’s election, the North Carolina Republican Party announced a 10-point agenda they planned to implement within the first 100 legislative days of the new session. Surprisingly, the GOP’s list of top priorities failed to include any mention of social issues. That was a smart move, considering this fall’s overwhelming Tea Party-backed upswing in economic and populist concerns among voters and an impending $3.7 billion budget shortfall.

While talk about social issues like marriage equality was muted before the election, it didn’t take long for leading anti-LGBT proponents among the Republican Party’s ranks to speak up. Immediately following the GOP’s victory, leaders like Gaston County Sen. Jim Forrester and Stam, who will now become House Majority Leader, began adding to their list of priorities.

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In two Associated Press pieces published less than a week after the election, several GOP members of the legislature insisted on the passage of the constitutional amendment. One, a relatively new Republican House member in his 20s, widened his focus to include 2009’s SVPA and HYA, legislation meant to curb bullying and extend comprehensive sex education in the state’s public high schools.

“If you look at the last two years when the Democrats and the liberals here have pushed their ultraliberal social agenda in Raleigh, that’s what really pushed the grass roots to fight back here and helped us win a majority,” Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly) told the news agency.

Palmquist admits 2009’s pro-equality legislation could come under threat: “There are conservatives who would like to see the rollback of the School Violence Prevention Act and Healthy Youth Act,” he says.

But, Palmquist also hopes Republican leaders will hold true to the feelings of most North Carolinians.

“That is so far out of step with where the majority of North Carolinians are,” he says. “I really hope the legislative leadership would not bring those issues to the floor and would focus on other things, but we are preparing for the possibility that those could come up even though it’s so out of touch with where the state and country are on these issues.”

But, it’s not just marriage, anti-bullying prevention and sex ed legislation that might be on the chopping block. If North Carolina Republicans take their cue from national anti-LGBT organizations or the anti-equality trajectory forged by other states, what other threats might LGBT people face this session?

In some states, similar anti-LGBT constitutional amendments have not only banned recognition of same-sex marriage, but also the extension of domestic partner benefits for both public and private employees. Three counties and four cities and towns offer such benefits to same-sex partners of their employees, along with countless private corporations and other employers.

The potential loss of domestic partner benefits has been seen in other states. Even if North Carolina’s proposed amendment doesn’t ban them, GOP legislators could take up measures to enact such a ban through statute.

An impending amendment battle could also threaten same-sex parents, and a recent court case involving Wilmington’s Sen. Boseman have given Republican lawmakers plenty of fuel for their legislative and rhetorical fires.

Adoption case sets tone

Throughout last year, Boseman faced legal challenges to the adoption of her son with her former partner Melissa Jarrell. In December, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued the final ruling in Boseman’s case, voiding her adoption though they left parental visitation rights in place.

The ruling was limited to Boseman and her partner and doesn’t void other adoptions by same-sex parents across the state, most of them performed in Durham and Orange Counties. Despite the limited scope of the ruling, so-called second-parent adoptions — in which one biologically-related parent is waived of the requirement to relinquish parental rights when a same-sex partner petitions for adoption — have been put into doubt and legislative limbo.

Both Forrester and Stam spoke out early in the case on the need for legislative clarification on adoption.

“The effect of this is that adoption policy can now be set by our district court judges,” Stam told The News & Observer following the Court of Appeals’ initial ruling upholding Boseman’s adoption. “All people have to do now is find one district court judge who will do what they want. That’s the lowest common denominator adoption policy.”

In the same article, staff writer Mandy Locke reported Forrester thought it “might be time for legislators to explicitly tell judges what kind of families can adopt children.”

In other states, attempted gay adoption bans have almost immediately followed successful ballot initiatives for constitutional amendments on marriage. After the onslaught of marriage amendment successes in 2004, some 16 states were considering bans on adoption by gay singles and same-sex parents. In Arkansas, for example, GOP legislators proposed a complete ban on adoption by “unmarried partners” just four years after the state passed one of the most stringent anti-LGBT marriage amendments in the nation. The question was placed on the ballot and the ban passed 57-43 percent.

GOP gets dirty

Extreme anti-gay rhetoric doesn’t solely belong to Republican Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James. His late December remarks on gays, sexual predators and pedophilia made waves locally and nationally, and were quickly followed up by more outlandish statements by state Rep. Larry Brown (R-Forsyth), who’d caused another round of controversy last October when he called gays “queers” and “fruitloops” in an email to 60 of his Republican colleagues.

In an interview with The Winston-Salem Journal on Jan. 11, Brown outlined his own priorities for the new legislative session. The constitutional amendment was first on his list, but he also made room for stripping funding from current HIV/AIDS treatment programs.

Discussing the issue with a Journal reporter, Brown said the government shouldn’t be funding treatment for those with HIV or AIDS who “caused it by the way the live.”

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“I’m not opposed to helping a child born with HIV or something,” Brown told the paper, “but I don’t condone spending taxpayers’ money to help people living in perverted lifestyles.”

Brown’s comments were quickly condemned by statewide and national LGBT advocates.

“These comments are completely unacceptable,” said Equality North Carolina’s Palmquist. “Larry Brown is out of touch with the people of North Carolina, who strongly support programs to care for the most vulnerable among us, and he’s out of step with his own party.”

Palmquist also pointed out Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr’s long, outspoken support for funding for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.

“I think it’s common sense,” Burr said of the program this fall. “The compassionate thing to do is to make sure people get the medications they need. But, if you look at it from a budgetary standpoint, it’s much more cost effective to provide medication than it is to treat the devastating effects for individuals who don’t receive treatment.”

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, has called on Brown to apologize for his remarks. HRC president Joe Solmonese said Brown’s comments were “hysterical, judgemental and inaccurate” and “out of line with the fair-minded people of North Carolina.”

Republican members of the House, from Brown’s next-door colleague and future House Whip Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth) to other legislative leaders like Stam, have refused to comment on Brown’s remarks. Speaker-elect Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) has spoken out generally, calling Brown’s October comments an “unacceptable distraction.”

Tillis’ office has yet to return qnotes’ requests for an interview. An interview request to Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R-Mecklenburg) also went unreturned.

Advocates reaching out

Palmquist says his group is well-positioned to build alliances and work with, instead of in opposition to, the legislature’s new Republican leadership. Several of the group’s heavily-involved donors and board members are Republican including board chair Dan Gurley, a former executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party.

“The Republicans involved with Equality North Carolina have really stepped up in engaging their networks with Republican legislators and staff to help us do everything we can to try and block negative legislation and strengthen relationships we have on that side of the aisle,” he says.

Though Palmquist says he’s not spoken directly with Tillis, there’s a general sense that the new legislature’s leaders will focus on some priorities other than those related to arch-conservatives’ social agenda.

“There’s a recognition that the new majority was elected around the economy and jobs and size of government and not on social issues including LGBT equality,” he says. “So, we’re going to have to remind them of that and hold them to that as we go forward in this session and hold them responsible to the issues voters care about.”

Such a strategy will come in handy if rumors of an impending amendment campaign are heavly supported by monies, ads or other resources from groups like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

“I’ve heard rumors that the National Organization for Marriage or other national organizations are planning to come in,” Palmquists says. “We haven’t seen any concrete evidence of that, but we anticipate it could happen.”

HRC anticipates similar action, not only in North Carolina, but in several other states as well. In an action alert sent to its members on Jan. 13, HRC President Joe Solmonese called on community members to get involved and said NOM could build up a presence in the Tar Heel State, Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

NOM’s 2010 “Summer of Marriage” tour made a stop in Raleigh. The rally, held on State Capitol grounds, was small but speakers — like Mary Forrester, wife of Gaston County Sen. Forrester — were absolute in their support for a constitutional amendment.

Equality North Carolina says it’s ready to ensure the continued safety of LGBT North Carolinians. Part of their strategy includes getting constituents to Raleigh for their Day of Action in February. They expected at least 100-150 people, though they’d like to see more.

The timeline for a constitutional amendment or other anti-equality measures remain unclear, though Palmquist guesses the amendment could be heard as early as this year and placed on the ballot either this November or in 2012. However that timeline progresses, he says this year’s legislative session presents both unique opportunities and critical challenges. He’s anxious to get as many constituents to Raleigh as he can. “It’s more urgent than ever before to have people there from all over the state,” he says. : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.