The struggle for equality has returned to Charlotte for the same reason it made national headlines in 2016 — LGBTQ+ protections.
A controversial part of state law, House Bill 142 — which replaced and partially-repealed House Bill 2, popularly simplified to a “bathroom bill” — sunset late last year, leaving the door open for North Carolina cities to adopt their own ordinances.
This week, three North Carolina municipalities passed ordinances to protect its LGBTQ residents from discrimination, and two more might do the same soon.
Such a move could be made by the Charlotte City Council but there’s been no public mention or discussion among elected leaders yet. A spokesperson for the city on Friday said he had no information on the topic.
Still, a grassroots movement has been gaining momentum to pass a similar ordinance here since late November 2020, just before HB142 was set to expire, advocates tell the Observer.
Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, said the adoption of protective policies in Charlotte could be especially meaningful because of the history in 2016.
“I think in many ways Charlotte wanting to protect its citizens brought on this incredible backlash from (the N.C. General Assembly) and created this horrible black eye on the state’s credibility as one of the more progressive states in the South,” she said in an interview with the Observer Friday.
“Charlotte moving to pass an ordinance when they do will be incredible for repairing some of the public harm to some of our most vulnerable siblings in the transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary communities.”
In February 2016, Charlotte’s city council voted to expand its non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBTQ+ protections that prohibited local businesses and restaurants from discriminating against gay or transgender residents and allowed transgender people to use whichever gendered public bathroom they identified with.
Soon after, North Carolina’s then-Republican-controlled legislature passed HB2, which was discriminatory in that it required transgender people to use bathrooms in government buildings that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificate — not the gender they identify with. It also prohibited the local adoption of anti-discriminatory protective policies at the municipal level, and subsequently overrode Charlotte’s ordinance.
North Carolina — home to nearly 400,000 LGBTQ+ people — immediately became a national battleground for LGBTQ+ rights.
The bill caused widespread controversy and drew headlines across the country, and it resulted in economic backlash from several companies and sports teams. In response, state lawmakers repealed HB2 but replaced it the following year with HB142, intended to serve as a compromise but it resulted in dissatisfaction on both sides.
The law still granted state legislators permanent governance over public bathrooms, and that part of HB142 continues to be in place. Currently, though there is no specific language preventing transgender North Carolinians from using the bathrooms they wish — but there is no specific language protecting them from harassment either.
HB142 also gave the ban on new local LGBTQ+ protective ordinances an expiration date — December 2020.
Hillsborough, Carrboro, and Chapel Hill, in that order, have already taken advantage of moratorium’s end — they passed LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination ordinances this week, and Durham and Orange County leaders are set to consider their own next week, according to Equality NC.
Advocacy organization Equality North Carolina has been leading a statewide effort to connect with local leaders and enact protective policies in municipalities now that the moratorium has ended, and according to Equality NC, two-thirds of North Carolinians support these policies. Some have expressed support for Charlotte’s adoption of an anti-discriminatory ordinance online.
Cameron Pruette, president of the LGBTQ Democrats of Mecklenburg County, along with Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce public relations director Erin Barbee, is speaking to the city’s intercultural relationship committee in a few weeks about expanding Charlotte’s non-discrimination policies.
Pruette said he’d like to see Charlotte consider more inclusive protections, too, like natural hair protections that allow Black people to wear their hair how they’d like in the workplace without discrimination.
Pruette has been reaching out to the City Council for several weeks and received responses from some city leaders, but he hasn’t seen any action yet.
“We’re excited to present to this committee because we’re not hearing anything from the council,” he said. “We’re disappointed because we initially got good overtures and responses, but this was not brought up at the strategic retreat this week.”
He’s had discussions with a few council members who are supportive, he said, but expressed concern about the General Assembly. Pruette is disappointed in the lack of action so far.
“On a personal note, working as queer Democrat in the city, to have so many Democrats on our city council being slow to take up LGBT equality is frustrating. We’re not asking for something that’s not been done before,” he said. “We definitely think it’s capable of being done, and we’re really hopeful as we continue to get public pressure.”
Pruette said though he fears city leaders might be hesitant because they received the brunt of the pushback last time, he hopes the council will vote to expand LGBTQ protections by the end of February. He is signed up to speak at their next public forum on Jan. 27.
Pruette emphasized protective policies could be “life-saving” for transgender Charlotteans, especially.
“To be a person of color who is also trans, there are extra layers of barriers to get housing and jobs, and we have to take steps to build equity and remedy that to give them an equal opportunity at life,” he said. “Charlotte wants to get everyone to come here and be a beacon of progress. This would mean you’re welcome here — welcome to find a job here, live here, retire here. It could revitalize our city.”
Matt Comer, current communications director of Charlotte Pride, was the then-editor of LGBTQ+ media publication Q Notes when controversy erupted in 2016. He said one barrier is that it’s a common belief that the discrimination of LGBTQ+ people is already illegal.
“It’s not. They can be denied access to restaurants, to hotels, to healthcare. They can be refused housing, all simply because of their sexual orientation and gender expression,” he said. “Transgender women have incredible rates of houselessness and unemployment simply because they are transgender.”
Comer said it’s up to cities to protect their residents when they’re not protected otherwise, a statement echoed by Daniel Valdez, president of the Charlotte Pride board of directors, who also said the legacy of HB2 and HB142 has affected tourism locally and statewide.
“Though tourists may feel unsafe visiting Charlotte, I am most concerned about the tens of thousands of my fellow LGBTQ community members who call this city our home while facing discriminatory barriers in each step of their daily lives,” Valdez said. “In the absence of federal or statewide protections, it falls on our city’s leaders to do the right thing for all Charlotteans.”