Allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice in restaurants, stores and other places of public accommodation divided the Charlotte City Council on Monday night.
The city is considering expanding its existing nondiscrimination ordinance to include protections for people based on their sexual orientation, sexual identity or sexual expression, and familial or marital status.
Much of the ordinance – such as adding gay and lesbian people to a group of protected classes – wasn’t controversial. But the bathroom question provoked a sharp exchange between council members.
At-large member Michael Barnes, a Democrat, said he was concerned about sending his children into public restrooms.
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“If I send one of my daughters into a public bathroom, and I see (a man) going into that bathroom, I am going to have some concern,” Barnes said.
His comment drew a rebuke from Al Austin, a fellow Democrat. Austin said it was deplorable that the city and nation was still debating civil rights, 50 years after the federal Civil Rights Act was passed.
“Mr. Barnes, if you want to know about people being discriminated against because they are LGBT, it’s a bad feeling going into a restaurant and being asked to turn around,” Austin said.
The City Council will vote on the ordinance Feb. 23.
Republican Kenny Smith asked that the provisions regarding transgender people be removed, and he was also concerned about the bathroom issue in part because of his children.
“That’s not deplorable,” Smith said about his concerns.
Smith made a motion to take the vote off the Feb. 23 agenda. His vote was defeated 7-4.
Barnes, Smith, Republican Ed Driggs and Democrat Greg Phipps voted to remove the item from the agenda. Democrat David Howard, an at-large member, voted to bring the issue forward but said he hasn’t decided how he will vote.
Barnes and Howard have said they are running for mayor, and the issue could surface in the race.
The proposed ordinance would prohibit places of public accommodation – such as restaurants, bars and stores – from discriminating against LGBT people or people based on their marital or familial status. It would not apply to a private business’ hiring and firing.
That means a business could run afoul of a city ordinance if it refused to serve an LGBT customer. But that business could refuse to hire the same person for a job because they are gay or transgender.
In many ways, the expanded ordinance would be symbolic. The city has said the existing ordinance has little teeth, and if there is a complaint about a business, the city acts as a mediator to bring the two sides together and find a resolution.
But proponents say it’s an important step to give protection to LGBT people. Scott Bishop, of the Mecklenburg LGBT political action committee, Meck PAC, has said many people wrongly assume that gay, lesbian and transgender people already have protection. He has said a common problem for LGBT groups is that businesses commit to providing service to their events, but then cancel when they discover their work is for a gay or lesbian organization.
Bishop has also said a goal of the ordinance is to allow transgender people to use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable. For instance, those born male who identify with and express their identity as women should be able to use the bathroom with other women if they so choose, he said.
That issue flared up at Central Piedmont Community College last year and also has been contentious nationwide. At CPCC, a transgender student was stopped by a security guard after using the women’s restroom. The student complained that the guard mocked her.
The ordinance would also prohibit the city from awarding contracts to businesses that discriminate against the LGBT community. It would also prohibit taxis and limousines from discriminating against gay, lesbian and transgender people.