Business

Charlotte officials prep businesses for LGBT ordinance

Members of the audience hold up signs before the start of the Charlotte City Council meeting’s vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance on Feb. 22.
Members of the audience hold up signs before the start of the Charlotte City Council meeting’s vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance on Feb. 22. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The nondiscrimination ordinance adopted by Charlotte City Council last month does not do away with separate-sex bathrooms. It doesn’t require construction of unisex bathrooms, and it doesn’t require businesses to put up special signs for transgender customers.

Those are the kinds of questions the city of Charlotte is working to clarify for the business community before April 1, when the ordinance takes effect. After that, Charlotte businesses cannot refuse service to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender customers, even if they say it’s against their religious beliefs.

City attorney Bob Hagemann says so far, he hasn’t heard of any Charlotte businesses that say they can’t comply with the ordinance, which applies to places of public accommodation like stores, restaurants and bars, as well as taxis and limos.

Bathroom access is the most controversial part of the ordinance, which allows transgender people to use either a men’s or women’s bathroom, depending on the gender with which they identify.

Opponents say they’re worried about the safety of women and girls in a public bathroom with those who were born male. Supporters said those fears were overblown, and that transgender people are at risk of violence in the bathroom.

Hagemann said his office is trying to debunk any misunderstandings or rumors about the bathroom provision. “It’s simply accommodating people in existing facilities,” he said.

N.C. Rep. Dan Bishop, a candidate for N.C. Senate, maintained in a posting on his campaign website last month that the ordinance effectively does away with separate men’s and women’s bathrooms. He said the ordinance’s wording allows any individual to access both men’s and women’s bathrooms – which he called “a boneheaded blunder.”

Hagemann’s office compiled a list of frequently asked questions about the ordinance and started distributing them Wednesday to business organizations like the Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte Area Hotel Association to give to their members.

The list points out that the ordinance doesn’t apply to some businesses, including private country clubs, private dining rooms, private gymnasiums and private recreation facilities.

Another point the city is trying to clarify to businesses: The ordinance pertains only to treatment of customers, not employment issues. Those fall on the federal government.

“The feds have a robust program through Title VII, going back to 1964. In fact, they have started to interpret sex as used in federal nondiscrimination laws to include orientation, identity, expression. So they are prepared to bring enforcement actions,” Hagemann said.

The ordinance is the first of its kind in North Carolina. Three South Carolina cities have similar ordinances: Columbia, Charleston and Myrtle Beach. They’re written differently, but “conceptually are identical” to what Charlotte did, Hagemann said.

“The lesson I would say we’ve learned (from the South Carolina cities) is it does not appear to be a problem or an issue there,” he added.

The ordinance was approved by the Charlotte City Council last month and adds to the list of already protected characteristics, like race and religion. N.C. lawmakers have said they are considering a special legislative session to deal with the controversial bathroom provision.

“We’re getting out the information and are prepared to implement it. If something changes, we’ll react to it,” Hagemann said.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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