NOTE: I don't usually blog about North Carolina issues on Pandagon, but this post represents a good illustration of the gulf between black elected officials and those fighting for LGBT rights, particularly those of us who are black and gay. The fact is, most of them don't know many, if any out black LGBTs, and it's pretty clear that they don't like dealing with the issue -- even though some may vote the right way on some of our issues.The encounters I had when visiting my state's legislators provided a reality check on just how wide that gulf is.
It was a wonderful sunny and crisp day in Raleigh on Tuesday, and there was a great turnout for the Equality NC Day of Action. It drew 250 people from across the state -- that more than doubled the attendance at prior lobby days. We had people come from as far away as Duck (that's on the Outer Banks) and to the mountain town of Hendersonville to meet with the legislators to discuss pro-LGBT legislation in the queue and to urge them to oppose the marriage amendment. (ENC):
"We are thrilled to see so many North Carolinians, both LGBT and allies, who took time off of work to travel to Raleigh and make do the hard work of building support for fair and equal treatment of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity," said Ian Palmquist, Executive Director. "We know that face-to-face conversations are the single most effective tool we have to get more legislators to support our issues."
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It was my first time participating in the Day of Action, and it was also the first opportunity for longtime activist Mandy Carter. We got together with other black LGBTs and allies in attendance to meet with members of the legislative black caucus. Things got very interesting during those meetings. More on that later.
We decided to ease ourselves into the day by visiting allies first, and then take on the folks who needed persuasion. Our first meeting was with Rep. Sandra Spaulding Hughes (D-New Hanover, Pender). Yes, we are related somewhere on the family tree, but we met for the first time on Tuesday. She's a retired educator and former member of the Wilmington city council and is a strong advocate of comprehensive sex ed for students, and supports the statewide Healthy Youth Act legislation (HB 88/S221). In an interview with QNotes last year, Rep. Hughes stated that she opposes the marriage amendment and supports the anti-bullying bill, the School Violence Prevention Act (HB548/SB526). The latter has a good chance of passing this year, as it came thisclose last time around.
We also met with Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham-30). He's actually not my state representative -- mine is Rep. Larry D. Hall (D-Durham-29), who was not available on lobby day. When our group met with Rep. Luebke the Non-Discrimination in State Employment bill had not been filed in the House or Senate, but on Wednesday SB 843 was introduced in the Senate by Charles W. Albertson and was sent to Judiciary II Committee.
SECTION 1. Article 7 of Chapter 120 of the General Statutes is amended by adding a new section to read:
"§ 120-32.04. Legislative personnel nondiscrimination policy.
The General Assembly shall not discriminate in any of its personnel policies, practices, or benefits on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or disability."
...SECTION 5. G.S. 12-3 is amended by adding a new subdivision to read:
"(14) 'Sexual orientation.' – The phrase 'sexual orientation' means actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality, or a person's gender-related identity or expression."
The co-sponsors are Bob Atwater, Doug Berger, Julia Boseman, Daniel G. Clodfelter, Eleanor Kinnaird, William R. Purcell, Josh Stein, David F. Weinstein. Senator Bob Atwater (D-Durham-18) is my state senator. We also stopped by his office for a visit; he has also been on the good side of all LGBT legislation so far.
It's time to clue you in on what happened when we met with some other members of the legislative black caucus -- you won't believe it.
It's one thing to talk about the disconnect between some black lawmakers who don't "get it" that LGBT issues are social justice issues, but to see it play out in person, even with a legislator who votes with us on issues, is really disturbing. We stopped by the office of Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford). As I said, she's been wonderful on the issues -- supporting the bullying bill, comprehensive sex ed, and indicated that she would consider supporting the anti-discrimination bill once she had a chance to see it, since it has not been introduced in the House. However, there was a very strange dynamic going on. In most of our meetings we let members of our group who were the actual constituents of the lawmaker take the lead in posing questions, since ultimately, they work for them.
In this instance, the constituents in our group were a young white gay man and woman who asked Rep. Adams about her positions and thanked her for her support. Mandy Carter and I, and at least 4 other black LGBTs were present when the constituent asked how to address those members of the black caucus (Adams is the chair) who are in favor of the marriage amendment. Specifically, the young man asked if she would be willing to speak with her colleagues about the issue.
The answer she gave was pretty astonishing. The three reasons given:
1) The amendment "isn't going anywhere" (Speaker Joe Hackney has buried it in four committees in the House, and on the Senate side it is buried in a committee that hasn't met since 2001), therefore there isn't any point to discuss it with those caucus members;
2) we (meaning those of us there) should lobby those black members who are for the amendment, it's not her job to do this;
3) With several black LGBTs standing right there in front of her, Rep. Adams actually said "your issues are not the black caucus's issues" -- as in social justice for black LGBTs is not their issue. I was directly next to the constituent and stunned into silence; we all were. I presume she hasn't received the memo supporting the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry from NAACP national board chair Julian Bond and President and CEO Ben Jealous of the NAACP.
"The NAACP's mission is to help create a society where all Americans have equal protection and opportunity under the law, said President Jealous. Our Mission Statement calls for the 'equality of rights of all persons. Prop. 8 strips same-sex couples of a fundamental freedom, as defined by the California State Supreme Court. In so doing, it poses a serious threat to all Americans.
..."The NAACP has long opposed any proposal that would alter the federal or state constitutions for the purpose of excluding any groups or individuals from guarantees of equal protection," said Chairman Bond.
In fact, the NC black legislative caucus web site says this:
Justice - Assure equal protection under the law for African-Americans, other racial/ethnic minorities, the mentally ill and the poor.
I guess that means "except if you're black and LGBT." We were rendered invisible, nonexistent. It took your breath away to see how ingrained the thinking is regarding visibility of black LGBTs. Even Mandy Carter, who's dealt with social justice issues of all kinds her entire career, was taken aback.
So, a lot of work needs to be done, even among those who are our allies in principle. It's pretty clear Rep. Adams doesn't want to lead in any type of advocacy on this area to bring her colleagues along, but is fine with personally voting in favor of LGBT issues. Honestly, I expect this is true in many cases -- a lot of legislators would prefer the amendment bill stay buried so they don't have to talk about it, or heaven forbid, cast a vote.
Our last stop was the most challenging one of the day -- a member of the black legislative caucus who supports the marriage amendment, Rep. Earline W. Parmon (D-Forsyth). She is a supporter of the Healthy Youth Act, and I believe she is in favor of the bullying bill. But on marriage -- her story was all too familiar. Our group of black LGBTs was standing right there as the questions were delivered by her constituents in the group (who happened to be white). The conversation was quite uncomfortable, but respectful.
Why is she in favor of the marriage amendment?
1) Because it's a "personal issue" for her. Her constituent pointed out that she is in the office because the voters in her district sent her to the General Assembly to represent them, not her personal feelings about legislation. That led the lawmaker to move on to the next reason...
2) "I'm a minister." She made it clear that she didn't want to have to disclose this bit of business, but since #1 didn't work out very well, this was the next hurdle to put up. I thought I was going to erupt. Thankfully I was at the back of the group near the door. The constituent, to her credit, challenged her on the issue of church-state separation, but Rep. Parmon wouldn't budge. Trying to have a reality-based conversation with someone who feels so strongly that there is no line between the two is like hitting a wall.
One of the black LGBTs with the group, in order to try to connect by humanizing the issue, told the story of friends of hers, a lesbian couple raising a child. One of the mothers is dying of a chronic illness, and in North Carolina there's nothing to legally protect them as a unit -- any will drawn up can be challenged by a homophobic family member, custody could be in jeopardy, and obviously there are myriad issues that are in play because of the lack of any kind of legal recognition.
Rep. Parmon was visibly moved by this story, but you could tell it left her in a quandry. That led to explanation #3.
3) " I'm not against anyone, one to one". She said this several times, as if to suggest that she's only protecting marriage by favoring the amendment, but is sympathetic to the concerns raised by the story of the lesbian couple. It's the classic "I'm really not a bigot" defense. No one wants to have that label placed upon them. Unfortunately that led Rep. Parmon to ramble into territory that was perilously close to civil unions without saying those words specifically. The problem, even if she only supports some limited legal recognition, is that the marriage amendment she supports says:
Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."
That means no civil unions, no domestic partnerships, nada. It's written so broadly that even private company benefits offered to "same-sex spousal equivalents" could be jeopardized. If Rep. Parmon supports some kind of way for that lesbian couple to protect their family unit if one passes away, she's negating any possible solution by supporting the amendment.
I passed forward an information sheet with the language of the bill on it so that she knew that we knew that none of the above reasons were adequate defenses for adding discrimination into our state constitution. The fact sheet was left on Rep. Parmon's desk.
Afterwards we all commented how hurtful it was to be rendered "less-than" to our faces by this respected lawmaker, who, if she stepped into a time machine that took her only a few generations back in time, couldn't marry a person of the same race (because blacks were property, not full citizens), let alone someone of another race -- and the bible was used to justify that. She looked at the people in her office in the eye and said that she "respects you as a person", but would, without any guilt, vote to ensure you aren't equal in the eyes of the law. It was painful, just painful.
I asked one member of our group, TaMeicka Clear of of PFLAG Out Like Us, to give her impressions of these eye-opening encounters.
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I think the day taught us all a valuable lesson that spending "face time" with lawmakers to share our stories is essential, and for black LGBTs it's critical -- it's not an option to be rendered silent and invisible. Mandy Carter and I, as well as others in the group, left committed to return to the legislature to engage with these lawmakers who have been able to cling to the fantasy that people of color do not exist in the LGBT rights movement.
Thanks to Equality NC for setting this up and prepping all of the citizen lobbyists.