Businessman Wesley Mancini helped change Charlotte over the past decade, though even he admits a lot of people don’t like the causes he championed.
And he says that’s OK.
It all started in 1997, when members of the Mecklenburg County board of commissioners objected to a local theater using public money to stage the gay-themed play “Angels in America” – so it voted to withhold arts funding for anything that was gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Mancini, a successful fabric designer, saw it as blatant censorship, so he used his own money to launch a foundation dedicated to supporting the city’s LGBT community.
The Wesley Mancini Foundation has since given away tens of thousands of dollars to projects that other benefactors might have deemed too risky to underwrite.
It all stops this month, however. The foundation is closing, in part because 60-year-old Mancini says he’s tired of a fight that never seems to be won.
“It feels like I’ve been in this battle for 30 years … forever,” says Mancini. “And yet North Carolina is still a place where you can be fired for being gay. So much still needs to happen.”
The community’s LGBT advocates agree, in view of last year’s overwhelming voter support for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as only being between a man and woman. In addition to banning same-sex marriage, North Carolina does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Yet many LGBT leaders say Charlotte is a different place thanks to Mancini’s 13 years of funding public forums, school campaigns and documentaries that sought to dispel myths and stereotypes about gays.
“His foundation added strength to the cause and gave it a higher profile at a time when it was a taboo topic,” says Suzanne Fetscher, president of the McColl Center for Visual Art.
“The foundation was at the forefront of addressing what is a civil rights issue … and I think it had a tremendous impact.”
The foundation’s final act is to give $30,000 for the creation of an artist-in-residence program at the McColl Center, which promotes art as a catalyst for positive social change.
Mancini says that’s in keeping with the mission of his foundation, which sought to promote LGBT projects that reached out to a broader spectrum of Charlotte’s population.
Examples include a billboard campaign promoting aid for struggling LGBT youth in 2002; an appearance by a gay chorus in Charlotte’s Thanksgiving parade in 2003, and helping stage a public forum on the “effects of labels” prior to the Democratic National Convention last fall.
“There was a time when the LGBT community was the pariah of Charlotte,” says Mancini. “It was a time when all people only knew what they heard at church. That’s what I was trying to change.”
LGBT advocates say Mancini’s impact went well beyond that, however.
By creating the foundation, Mancini made a bold statement that Charlotte’s LGBT community had both power and wealth and was prepared to use it, said Tom Warshauer, a manager with Charlotte’s Neighborhood & Business Services Department.
“Wesley was a successful businessman who came forward as an example of how gays and lesbians were willing to put resources into making sure they were fully included in this community,” said Warshauer, who helped Mancini start the foundation.
“Gays and lesbians had long been part of producing theater, but they had been quiet about wanting to see their lives reflected in it … Wesley made it clear that gays and lesbians were in the audience and part of the funding.”
‘Angels in America’
This year marks the 16th anniversary of a 5-4 county commissioners’ vote to deny money to arts agencies that expose people to “perverted forms of sexuality” and “deviate from the value and societal role of the traditional American family.”
That included cutting $2.5 million for the Arts & Science Council, which distributed money to arts groups. (The county continued funding arts education.)
Central to the vote was the Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s 1996 staging of Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America,” a play related to the 1980’s AIDS crisis that included seven seconds of nudity and openly gay characters.
Critics called the resolution a mean-spirited attack on homosexuals, and a way to “legislate hate.” Even today, many see it as Charlotte’s biggest cultural embarrassment.
Mancini wasn’t the only one who took action as a result.
Not long after the vote, the Mecklenburg Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) was formed to mobilize the LGBT community for elections.
Many of MeckPAC’s founders also helped create the Mancini Foundation, including Phil Wells, who now lives in Wilmington.
“The commission vote galvanized the LGBT community and created what is now a strong force in Charlotte,” says Wells.
“When MeckPAC formed, we couldn’t get politicians to take the money we raised. They wanted the money, but didn’t want anybody to know it came from a bunch of gays and lesbians. That has changed.”
Of the nine people now on Mecklenburg County’s board of commissioners, six have accepted MeckPAC campaign contributions and endorsements, the group says.
On the city council, it’s eight out of 11.
A need for change
Mancini, who is described by friends as shy and quiet, says he didn’t actually get angry at the county commissioners. It was more of a newcomer’s realization that elected officials in this part of the country weren’t representing the LGBT community, and that needed to change, he says.
Mancini is originally from Connecticut, the son of a single mother who worked as a bookkeeper and a nomadic father who Mancini says had 19 children by various women.
It wasn’t until college that Mancini says he realized he was gay. Even then, he tried to “overcome” it with a year in counseling. “I didn’t want to be gay. It was everything that was ridiculed and made fun of,” he says. “But I realized quickly that this was who I was and I had to accept it and move on.”
He moved to the Charlotte area after college in 1982, and found quick success as a fabric designer by tying into the region’s thriving textile industry.
Mancini says he quickly became accustomed to being “the gay one” in Charlotte social circles and often brought his partner to events. It was in the late 1980s – before there was a Mancini Foundation – that he first began earning his reputation as a philanthropist, giving about $100,000 to various charitable causes, including environmental groups.
In the process, he learned that many gays in Charlotte at that time were closeted and lived in fear of being found out.
When the brouhaha over “Angels in America” quickly took an anti-gay turn, Mancini says he understood why they were afraid.
“I realized that Charlotte didn’t know who the gay people were, beyond the stereotypes. And that was because we weren’t letting them know,” says Mancini.
“There was only one way to get out of this rut.”
He started a foundation, giving grants that amounted to only a few thousand dollars per program, but the gifts were powerful beyond the numbers.
Nearly half of the 40 organizations serving the local LGBT community operated on no more than $1,000 a year, a study revealed. And nearly one third had no budget at all. In all, the foundation gave out about $130,000 during its 13 years.
Mancini admits he got a lot of grief for starting the foundation, including angry phone calls to his company, Wesley Mancini Limited.
Those angry people are still out there. But he says there are growing signs of an ongoing shift in the city, including MeckPAC, a Lesbian and Gay Community Center, and the opening of a Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. The latter has given out $544,000 to gay causes since its founding in 2004.
What’s more, Charlotte’s Carolina Actors Studio Theater – which is sponsored by the ASC – intends to stage “Angels in America” on multiple nights this spring.
And, so far, no public protest is expected.
Mancini figures, at the least, Charlotte is treating the LGBT community with more fairness than a decade ago.
So he’s moving on.
“I think it’s the next generation’s time to step up and take over.”
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