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LGBT organizing pays off in rural N.C.
Salisbury and Rowan County experiencing positive growth

by Will Billings . Contributing Writer
SALISBURY — When thinking of rural North Carolina, LGBT organizing is probably one of the last considerations to pass through a person’s mind. In Rowan County, however, LGBT community members are organizing for positive change and making in-roads with local government leaders. The usually static nature of rural living is starting to become quite dynamic.

The area — home to the school board that voted to ban all so-called “sex-based clubs” in order to rid itself of gay-straight alliances in the high schools — now plays host to an active chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). The group is becoming stronger and more influential in community and government affairs.

In late March, Salisbury/Rowan PFLAG drafted a petition urging the Salisbury City Council to include sexual orientation and gender identity in city equal employment policies.

PFLAG’s inaugural fall social held on Nov. 17 in Salisbury, N.C., drew over 100 people.

The group acquired some 200 signatures from city residents. In April, the petition went to the Salisbury City Council and the new policy was adopted in May 2007.

Some members of the council, however, weren’t familiar with the concept of gender identity. After consideration, the City offered the language “…sexual orientation or any other personal characteristic not related to job performance,” in place of specific gender identity protection.
“It’s not the exact language we would have liked to have seen, but in many ways, it’s very acceptable,” said Mike Clawson, president of Salisbury/Rowan PFLAG. “Although the list of cities that have expanded their EEO policies to include sexual orientation has risen, not many have gone that extra step to include gender identity. I thought Salisbury’s choice was the next best thing.”

Salisbury/Rowan PFLAG reached another milestone achievement when its first-ever community fundraising evening was held Nov. 17. The silent auction and social gathering at a downtown Salisbury art gallery raised money for the group’s new youth scholarship fund. Taken from endowed monies in a newly created foundation, the youth scholarship will be awarded yearly to worthy LGBT or straight ally students in Rowan County.

The event drew over 100 participants. More than $7,500 was raised for the scholarship fund.
“I think the turnout is wonderful because it means people are showing they care. We’ve had quite a few people come in to support us,” said Myra Patterson, a founding member of the group’s executive board.

“One of the biggest things we wanted to do from the get-go was start a scholarship foundation,” said Clawson. “There are so many PFLAG chapters and only the most successful chapters have a bank account, let alone a scholarship fund.”

Clawson said the scholarship will be for any student, including non-traditional students. “Most traditional scholarships go to four-year scholars and that is great, but a lot of our LGBT kids may just want an education in a skill or trade that only takes two years. We want to help those kids as well,” he said.

Margaret Basinger is the chair of the scholarship advisory committee, which includes city, religious and business leaders.

“There have always been gay and lesbian youth in the high schools,” Basinger said. “I was a counsellor for 12 years and I knew many gay and lesbian youth. I hope that the scholarship will help those gay youth and those who support them. I want them to feel supported and as though they are valued. I want the youth of the community to know that there is support for them in this community, because I believe many of them don’t have support from their own families.”


PFLAG Salisbury President Mike Clawson (right) with founding board member Vee McHone.
Mark Lewis, a member of the Salisbury City Council, said he is happy to support PFLAG and the message and support it brings to his city. “Anytime we have a group that is striving to move us toward less discrimination and more social justice for everybody, I’m going to support it.

“The gay community is a population who continue to be discriminated against,” he added. “I believe there is room around the campfire of justice for everybody. It seems like we’ve been through times of discrimination before. To deny anybody access to everything that makes us special as America is just wrong.”

Clawson said Salisbury/Rowan PFLAG’s future plans include creating a speakers bureau and a youth group in the next year. In addition, they will keep pushing the school board for equality for LGBT youth.

“We are still working on the school board,” he said. “Since the last election we do have two new friendly board members, but two isn’t enough to rescind [the vote against the gay-straight alliances]. We hope it’ll come back onto the table soon. Perhaps those four who voted to ban the GSAs will start to open their eyes and see events like [our fundraiser] and have something to think about the next time they have to deal with a situation like that.”

Vee McHone, a founding member of the chapter’s executive board, said she is happy that things are getting better, but she wants more. “Just support us, understand us and love us,” she said.

info: www.salisbury-pflag.org

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