Opinion: How gay rights haunt North Carolina’s history; maybe a change is coming

Milton Ready
Milton Ready

First, bills like North Carolina’s stalled HB-755 glowingly called “Family First" that promote a conservative takeover of public education represent not the power but the decline of a culture in chaos.

They appear to be desperate attempts to legislate publicly what families, churches, and communities no longer can or want to do privately, and, additionally, to exert greater control over women. Typically they occur in Bible-belted states with the highest rates of divorce, spousal and child abuse, and abortion restrictions like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Louisiana.

Yet in North Carolina bills like HB-755 also take on a different meaning. It's all about gays, not centered on abortion restrictions or any number of other issues. North Carolina typically falls out of the top ten in divorce and abortion rates while it leads the way in anti-gay legislation. Until recently. Now it’s Florida. Gov. Roy Cooper acts as a check whereas previously Republican Gov. Pat McCrory acquiesced while Ron DeSantis in Florida doesn’t have any restraints with a veto-proof majority in the legislature. That’s what Republicans in North Carolina want.

Note that that HB-755 is about taking over public instruction and school boards, traditionally the province of women.

Indeed, the first fight in North Carolina over a woman's right to vote in the early 1900s came over election to local school boards, then not allowed by men. Not surprisingly, any women's movement has its own internal divisions and Phyllis Schlaflys, but in North Carolina conservative factions not only resist but frequently want to punish social change.

From the first "lavender scare" of the 1950s in Greensboro promoted by Senator Clyde Hoey to the diatribes of Jesse Helms and the notorious 2016 bathroom bill, North Carolina has felt especially threatened by gays and homosexuality. Go back and read Hoey’s 1950 report, all part of the McCarthyite “Red Scare” of that era, on why homosexuals should be “ferreted out” of government service, intelligence agencies, and the armed forces inasmuch as they somehow threatened law enforcement and national security.

While North Carolina knows how to treat and marginalize pushy women in cities like Charlotte and Asheville and kill proposed ERA Amendments, it historically is uncomfortable with any letter in LBGTQA+.  The haunting ghosts of North Carolina’s past lurk in HB-755.  For example, did you know that, in spite of the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas (2003) ruling that state laws against sodomy are unconstitutional, North Carolina defiantly has never repealed its original 1837 statue for crimes against nature?

Instead, North Carolina steadily has passed proposals to the state constitution to ban gay marriages, laws against transgender people in public bathrooms, and now HB-755 to forbid any discussion in public schools while it waits on a conservative Supreme Court to overturn gay marriage and perhaps even revisit Lawrence v. Texas.

The current HB-755 now awaits midterm elections, a crucial barometer to see if North Carolina’s long and tireless efforts since the 1950s to stall, then undermine civil rights legislation of that era, particularly women’s and gay rights, continues.

Tim Moore and Republicans have intuited that the backlash against gay rights offers an opportunity to strengthen the Republican base in North Carolina by promoting an appeal to traditional institutions like family and religion. Thus the rosy-cheeked “parental bill of rights” label on HB-755. That has become a stock appeal in North Carolina politics, a form of identity politics for Republicans.

The looming midterms are a litmus test for just how reactionary North Carolina has become.  For other states, it's about abortion restrictions but not in North Carolina. Homophobia and misogyny historically define our state’s place in that southern pantheon, not abortion. They always have.

Regardless of Democrat's rising optimism, two races in North Carolina will determine our direction as well as the nation's direction: Chuck Edwards/Jasmine Beach-Ferrara in the 11th District and Ted Budd/Cheri Beasley in the Senate.

Beach-Ferrara is openly gay, an ordained minister, married with children while Edwards is a straight male, an ironed out, pleated, establishment Republican businessman who seasonally is homophobic.

Budd is a gun-store owner, pistol-toting, Trumped-up male candidate only marginally competent, while Beasley is an African-American woman, former Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court, and highly qualified.

I remember too well what happened to Harvey Gantt, who in 1990 led in every poll against Jesse Helms until the actual vote. Voters in North Carolina traditionally give a Mayberry "teeth out" answer to pollsters about race and women candidates.

North Carolina has never elected an African-American woman to the Senate nor an openly gay Congressman. Yet I remain hopeful.

Milton Ready is a professor emeritus of history from UNC Asheville and the author of "The Tar Heel State:  A History of North Carolina"  

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Opinion: How gay rights haunt North Carolina’s history