Charlotte LGBT ordinance fails 6-5 in contentious meeting

Supporters and opponents of  the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance hold up signs inside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center prior to the start of the Charlotte City Council on Monday.
Supporters and opponents of the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance hold up signs inside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center prior to the start of the Charlotte City Council on Monday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

After a contentious meeting on Monday, Charlotte City Council voted down the most controversial ordinance it has considered in years, a nondiscrimination proposal that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to protected categories.

The measure failed 6-5, after a marathon meeting that featured hours of emotional debate and comments from supporters and opponents. Council members Michael Barnes, Kenny Smith, LaWana Mayfield, Ed Driggs, John Autry and Greg Phipps voted against it.

Before the final vote, council members had removed the section of the ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. That issue drew the most vigorous opposition from dozens of speakers.

“All over the world, there are restrooms for men and restrooms for women,” said Driggs, a Republican. “It does not place an unreasonable burden on them and it does not stigmatize them.”

But even with the bathroom portion removed, council remained divided. Several council members had said they were opposed to removing that part, which would also have applied to locker rooms and showers, because it weakened the ordinance.

“I will not and I cannot support an amendment that does not protect all of our citizens,” said Mayfield, a Democrat.

Mayfield and Autry, also a Democrat, voted against removing the bathroom section, and both voted against the final bill because they couldn’t support a half measure.

The final vote against the bill brought together both supporters and opponents of the original measure. Smith, a Republican, said he believed the bill was motivated not by a desire to end discrimination but by a political agenda to “impose the progressive left’s new morality on our citizens.”

Autry said afterward that the fight wasn’t over.

“The struggle will have to continue,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Voting in favor of the ordinance were David Howard, Claire Fallon, Vi Lyles, Patsy Kinsey and Al Austin, all Democrats.

After the vote, Howard predicted that the city will hear Tuesday from a broad range of coalitions over the vote, including the business community. “This is not good for job recruiting,” he said.

Passionate speakers

Some 120 people signed up to speak at the 6 p.m. meeting. They spoke, one at a time, for two minutes each. Prior to the meeting, supporters and opponents sent nearly 40,000 emails to City Council members about the proposal.

The two opposing sides spoke in passionate and often bitter terms. Opponents cited the Bible and said the independence of business owners could be violated by requiring them to serve gay and transgender people. They also said the law could make women and children vulnerable to sexual predators if biological males use women’s restrooms.

Supporters said discrimination is sometimes a matter of life and death for gay and transgender people, who are subjected to violence at higher rates than straight people. They said it’s time for Charlotte to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens from discrimination.

“Trans folks fight for their lives every day. That’s not hyperbole,” Sam Spencer told the council.

But many speakers said they believed the ordinance would result in discrimination against Christians.

“This mama bear is frustrated. … Homosexuals want those who disagree with them to be defeated,” said Jeannette Wilson. “I will not be silenced. A man’s right to choose the lady’s room is ridiculous and it’s dangerous.”

Adam Tennant said the issue is one of morality.

“It is evil to allow men into women’s restrooms,” he told the council. “You’re going to stand before a holy God on the day of judgment.”

Advocates said transgender men who identify as women are women, and said the talk of pedophiles using a wig and makeup as cover to enter a bathroom to prey on children is a “red herring.”

The debate took unusual turns at times. One man told City Council that he believes all bathrooms should be private, because it is difficult for him to urinate in public because of “shy bladder syndrome.” Another sang a song about how roosters and stallions can’t reproduce without hens and mares.

“Come on down to the farmyard!” Steve Triplett sang. He offered council his CD afterward.

‘Fearful rhetoric’

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, accused a small group of opponents of spreading “fearful rhetoric.”

“The loudest voices in the room are not always representing the majority,” he said. “This is the right thing to do, for fairness, for business and for our community.”

Other supporters spoke of their personal experiences with discrimination because of their gender or sexuality.

“I stand before you as someone who can be thrown out of a Charlotte hotel for who I am,” said Crystal Richardson, a lesbian from Charlotte.

Laura Levin, a Concord pediatrician who recently transitioned from male to female, spoke against the “bathroom inquisition.”

“Do you know what it feels like to have a distended bladder” because of fear of using the preferred bathroom, Levin asked council members.

Supporters of the measure gathered earlier Monday in a separate rally in front of the Government Center.

About 200 attended a rally by opponents, which included preaching and testimonials from fathers and mothers who claimed they feared their children being molested in public restrooms.

“To support this law is to be a bully,” speaker Jason Jimenez said of the council. “We as adults in this city have a right to protect our children. … This process is corrupt. We are telling the City Council: We know your dirty business.”

Long-standing issue

The proposed ordinance split the faith and business communities, with clergy on both sides sending open letters to the council.

Charlotte City Council first encountered the issue in 1992. That year, the council voted 7-4 against a recommendation by the city’s Community Relations Commission to extend nondiscrimination protections to include sexual orientation.

Voting in the minority that year was Democrat Dan Clodfelter, who is now mayor. Voting with the majority was Republican Pat McCrory, now the state’s governor.

Among America’s 20 biggest cities, only three – Charlotte, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. – are without the kind of nondiscrimination ordinance that came before the Charlotte City Council on Monday.

Many cities, large and small, years ago extended such protections to gays, lesbians and transgender persons. In South Carolina, Charleston, Columbia and Myrtle Beach have ordinances that “are conceptually the same and do the same thing” as Charlotte’s proposed ordinance, said Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann.

But, like Charlotte, cities that have tried to follow suit in the last two or three years have encountered fierce resistance from conservative Christian networks of local churches and statewide groups promoting traditional values.

Houston’s City Council passed its own version last year, igniting a firestorm that led first to a drive by opponents to force a voter referendum that could repeal it. When the city rejected the petition, saying too many signatures were invalid, a lawsuit was filed.

Late last year, meanwhile, voters in Fayetteville, Ark., overturned their city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which the City Council had passed last summer. Then, on the heels of that repeal, the Arkansas legislature voted last month to ban cities and counties from implementing nondiscrimination policies covering gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people.

Not all the fights have been in the South. When Cleveland City Council member Joe Cimperman tried in 2013 to get his city to pass the kind of nondiscrimination ordinance on the books in other Ohio cities – Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton – he got major opposition from conservative religious groups. Now Cimperman’s proposal is stuck in a council committee. Observer staff writers Karen Garloch, Tim Funk and Jim Morrill contributed.

The ordinance up for a Monday night vote by Charlotte City Council would have amended sections of the city code to extend nondiscrimination language to five new characteristics: familial status, marriage status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

To read the city attorney’s background memo and the proposed changes, click here.


How the city of Charlotte describes the proposed changes:

▪ Adds marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the list of protected characteristics in the commercial nondiscrimination and passenger vehicle for hire ordinance.

▪ Adds those same five new categories to the list of protected characteristics that the Community Relations Committee is authorized to make recommendations for legislation or other actions to eliminate or reduce discrimination and to approve or disapprove plans to eliminate discrimination through the conciliation process.

▪ Changes the public accommodation ordinance to add “sex” and the five new characteristics to the general prohibition of discrimination and delete the current separate section dealing with discrimination based on sex in restaurants, hotels and motels.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann says the ordinance would mean taxi drivers could not refuse to take gay, lesbian and transgender passengers; businesses offering goods and services to the public could not discriminate against such persons; and companies could be barred from doing business with the city for two years if they discriminate against vendors or subcontractors who are gay.

How did this proposal happen?

The city of Charlotte describes the background of the ordinance:

▪ On Nov. 24, Scott Bishop of the Human Rights Campaign gave a presentation to the City Council in which he proposed adding marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics in several of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinances. 

▪ In response to Bishop’s request, the City Council asked City Manager Ron Carlee and the city attorney to draft information on the proposed ordinance changes.

▪ On Feb. 9, Hagemann provided a history of protected characteristics under federal, state and local law, outlined the city’s current nondiscrimination ordinances. He also presented a proposed ordinance. 

▪ The City Council voted 7-4 (Michael Barnes, Ed Driggs, Greg Phipps and Kenny Smith voted no) to put the changes on the agenda.

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