CHAPEL HILL -- University of North Carolina law school students and guests celebrated the 28th anniversary National Coming Out Day on Tuesday by hearing about Charlotte’s efforts for equality.
The Lambda Law Students Association, an LGBT support and advocacy group for the law school, invited Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts address “how Charlotte came out and what happened after.”
Prior to introducing Roberts, Abe Johns, president of the association, told the crowd of about 80 guests that he knew he was gay since fourth grade, but did not tell anyone until he was 21.
“Today is important because visibility matters,” Johns said. “Visibility is knowledge, and knowledge is power and visibility helps people understand what is fair. By knowing what is fair, we can distill what is just.”
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In his introduction of Roberts -- a UNC alumna -- Johns said it was under her leadership that Charlotte adopted a “comprehensive nondiscrimination law for the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and the transgender people.”
Roberts said she thinks it’s an interesting question when people ask her about her views on LGBT rights.
“I was taught in democracy that everybody deserved to be treated equally, that everybody deserved a voice, that everyone deserved to be included,” she said.
Roberts said the matter of LGBT inclusion and equality reached Charlotte’s local leaders in 1992, though at that time an ordinance failed by a 4-7 vote.
“So this is not a brand new issue for Charlotte,” she said. “This is not a brand new issue for our country. We have come a long way.”
In 2015, prior to her election as mayor, Roberts said the nondiscriminatory ordinance made its way back to Charlotte and was an ongoing conversation during local campaigns.
On March 2, 2015, the ordinance contained three parts, which included nondiscrimination of public accommodations, along with a clause stating businesses should be nondiscriminatory.
An amendment was proposed to extract mention of bathrooms, showers and locker rooms from the ordinance and instead for it to state “nondiscrimination of public accommodations.” The amendment passed 9-2. However, the Charlotte Council voted 6-5 against the complete ordinance.
Roberts said a few individuals felt the mention of facilities should remain in the ordinance.
After elections in November 2015, it came back for council consideration Feb. 22 following public forums and passed 7-4 and included the mention of facilities.
Hours later, Roberts said state officials reacted.
“We thought, OK, if anything happens, they’ll do something like say local governments can’t have a rule on bathroom facilities,” she said. “We did not foresee the extent that the state would go to on (House Bill) 2.”
What was put into place, Roberts said, left out categories Charlotte’s ordinance contains, which includes mention of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
As of May 4, Charlotte had lost an estimated $86 million related to events, motel stays from those events, direct spending and business negotiations within six weeks of the legislation, Roberts said.
“They recognize that cities in North Carolina are progressive and inclusive, but they also know the perception of a state law that trumps everything,” she said.
Though there were later discussions to repeal the bill and for Charlotte to repeal its ordinance, Roberts said there was a fear that if would mean the city was taking a step back.
“Let people be who they are, and I’m hoping that our community will get to that point,” she said.
Emily Sorge is a first-year student at UNC and part of the law school’s association who attended Tuesday's event because she has friends who are transgender men and think they should be able to use samesex bathrooms.
“ I knew some of it -- like the effect on business,” Sorge said of what she took away from Roberts remarks. “I didn’t realize all the ins and outs of the law -- how much the state government sprung (H.B. 2) on everyone else.”
Following the event, Roberts said she thinks the “state needs to allow local communities to address the issues that they know best.”