Charlotte plots new strategy for LGBT protections

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The strategy for passing a long-sought-after package of LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in Charlotte has shifted this year as advocates prepare for city leaders to vote a second time on the proposal. 

In a conference call with supporters and others on Wednesday, representatives from the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), Equality North Carolina and the Human Rights Campaign discussed their efforts to bring the package of ordinances back to a Charlotte City Council vote they hope will occur in February. The pending vote, being shepherded by city leaders and a newly installed mayor, will come nearly a year since Charlotte leaders voted down the same proposals.

Up for debate are several measures that would add sexual orientation and gender identity, among others including marital status and familial status, to Charlotte’s public accommodations, passenger vehicle for hire, city contracting and Community Relations Committee ordinances. In March 2015, the proposal failed after a majority of council voted to strip out protections in public restrooms and two council members voted against what they considered a watered-down non-discrimination measure.

The non-discrimination proposals are similar to one rejected by voters in Houston last year and those facing intense public discussion in Jacksonville, Fla., where the Human Rights Campaign has also been active in local efforts to pass the ordinances. In Houston, Jacksonville and Charlotte, opponents have had a near-singular focus on the rights of transgender people and their access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

City taking the lead to pass ordinances

 

The new city-led strategy differs significantly from the one used when ordinance efforts first began in November 2014. Then, a broad, community-based coalition was brought together to mobilize their members, speak to elected officials and engage the media.

This year, MeckPAC, Equality North Carolina and the Human Rights Campaign have taken the lead on conversations with city leaders. The groups’ leaders and staff have been in contact with elected officials since last summer, when they joined together to form TurnOut! Charlotte, a campaign to endorse and elect pro-ordinance candidates during the city’s municipal elections last fall.

“This is a mayor-council driven effort to pass these citywide ordinances,” Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, told supporters on the Wednesday conference call. “They have really by necessity made sure they are the ones putting this together.”

The vote could come as soon as Feb 8, a tentative date advocates have targeted but remains unconfirmed. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts has declined to publicly commit to a date for the vote. City Councilmember John Autry, one of two members who voted against the watered-down proposal last March, also wouldn’t commit to a date. Neither would City Manager Ron Carlee. 

“It’s going to be soon,” City Councilmember Al Austin (second photo), one of two openly gay members on the body, told Project Q. “I know that a couple of pieces have already happened, so to speak.”

Opponents blast 'radical transgender proposal'

 

The city’s Community Relations Committee has partnered with the local non-profit Community Building Initiative to hold a community-wide forum on Feb. 1.

Advocates hope the forum won’t be as raucous as the nearly six-hour public comment period that saw over 100 people speak in favor and against the ordinances last year.

Scott Bishop, board chair of MeckPAC and a board member of the Human Rights Campaign, said the mayor didn’t want a repeat of last year’s public debate. Bishop has been advising city leaders on the forum.

“She really feels we’ve already done that. People have already talked about it in that forum in front of city council and she did not want to have that same kind of meeting again,” Bishop said. “What she did want to do was try to bring the community together to have more of a conversation about what’s at stake on both sides of the issue.”

The forum will include a presentation from the city attorney and several stories shared from both sides of the issue. Those several stories will likely be shared by actors delivering small vignettes, he said. Small group discussions will also be held during the forum. Bishop said city leaders want people to “talk to each other about what they’ve heard, what they’re thinking, what they think this will do.”

“We know this isn’t going to change people’s minds,” Bishop added. “We know people might leave with some unanswered questions. It at least starts the dialogue and sets the stage for an upcoming vote.”

Local leaders opposed to the ordinance package have already spoken out, including state Rep. Dan Bishop (no relation to Scott Bishop). He’s blasted Charlotte leaders for considering a “radical transgender proposal.”

“A small group of far-out progressives should not presume to decide for us all that a cross-dresser's liberty to express his gender nonconformity trumps the right of women and girls to peace of mind in the intimate setting of a public bathroom or shower,” Bishop (third photo), who is running for the state Senate, wrote recently in a campaign release.

Others involved in last year’s opposition are also gearing up for a renewed fight. The NC Values Coalition launched a social media effort to mobilize their supporters to attend the Feb. 1 forum. In a recent email, they described the ordinances as a “bathroom bill that will allow men to use women’s restrooms and force business owners to bow to the LGBT agenda.”

LGBT advocates will be highlighting transgender people and their stories in an effort to combat the bathroom-focused attacks from opponents, but they want to stress other storylines and talking points, too.

“We are not certainly going to shy away from defending the rights of members of the transgender community to use the bathroom of their correct gender,” Sgro said. “However, at the same time, we are going to make sure that the way we are taking about this is not just beating the point that this is entirely a bathroom ordinance.”

Supporters of ordinances say votes are secure

 

Advocates with the three LGBT organizations said Wednesday they have the votes to pass the ordinances. To advance the measure, council needs at least six votes. Advocates say they have at least seven votes.

Last year’s local coalition thought they, too, had the votes. The tally unexpectedly came undone just days before the scheduled vote when some council members bent under pressure from outspoken opposition. 

Joe Saunders, HRC's southern regional field director, addressed the vote count concern among supporters on Wednesday.

“We walked into the last round of this thinking the votes were there and there was an attrition in part because of how much our opposition mobilized,” Saunders said.

It will be critical, Saunders added, to ensure a strong LGBT community presence at the Feb. 1 forum and the final night city council votes on the issue. 

“We cannot as a community be out-organized,” he cautioned.

Though they’re no longer taking a leading role, remnants of the coalition in 2015 remain committed to local organizing on the effort. The Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce is working with Equality North Carolina to pull in the support of local business owners, workers and representatives of the city’s large corporations, like Bank of America and others. The LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County is also working on outreach plans.

Those on the city council dais believe the votes will come.

“I feel confident this time,” Austin said. “We’re going to get this done and I think it will be fully inclusive as we initially tried to do.”

Autry also said the votes are there. In an interview, he stressed that a vote should come sooner rather than later. Some leaders and opponents have previously called for committee hearings and broader discussion.

“We should take up the matter and vote on it,” Autry said. “If someone says we need more time to discuss, well, how much time? What is going to make those who are uncomfortable comfortable?”

Sgro (fourth photo) also believes its time to simply move the topic forward.

“My view right now is that we’ve had months and months of debate about this crucial piece of legal equality and protection that our community desperately needs,” he said. “I’m not going to wait one more day for council to pass it and they, I believe, are going to pass it.”

And when it passes, Sgro said, LGBT community organizations will need to continue their education efforts. Passing the ordinances won’t automatically increase the public’s awareness, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent upon all of us to come together … [and] make sure that we are committed with resources to elevating into leadership transgender voices across the state but especially in Charlotte,” Sgro said.

Charlotte-based LGBT journalist Matt Comer blogs at mattcomer.net.

[Charlotte Pride photo via | Austin photo via | Bishop photo via | Sgro photo via]

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