Charlotte could soon revive nondiscrimination ordinance

The gender-neutral bathroom at Pure Pizza in Plaza Midwood is adorned with two lockable stalls and a 8-foot-tall wall that separates them.
The gender-neutral bathroom at Pure Pizza in Plaza Midwood is adorned with two lockable stalls and a 8-foot-tall wall that separates them. jmcfadden@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte City Council may soon renew talks on expanding a nondiscrimination ordinance to make sexual orientation and gender identity protected categories citywide.

Elected officials rejected the measure a year ago – even after public uproar led them to remove a provision allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice.

This comes as a Plaza Midwood pizzeria owner’s note explaining why her restaurant offers a gender-neutral bathroom has ignited social media this week.

“The response has been unbelievable,” Pure Pizza owner Juli Metcalf Ghazi said Wednesday. “People are just emailing and calling in support.”

It’s unclear exactly when the topic will come before council again, but City Manager Ron Carlee said a discussion next month is possible.

The city’s community relations committee and Community Building Initiative will co-host a public forum Feb. 1 to educate residents on the ordinance. The event starts at 6 p.m. in the Palmer Building on East Seventh Street, said Gregg Watkins, spokesman for Mayor Jennifer Roberts.

City Council last March voted down a proposal to extend protections in the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. It fell apart over a provision that would have let transgender people use the bathroom of the gender they identify with.

Since then, LGBT activists have called for council to revisit an expansion, and some council members have said they would support the measure if it came back up.

“It goes back to what type of city we want to be,” said Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield, who voted against the ordinance because the bathroom provision had been removed before the vote. “Do we want to be a welcoming city? Do we want to be a city that encourages creativity and diversity?”

Photo goes viral

The rancor over the bathroom provision spurred Ghazi to add a gender-neutral restroom when she opened her Plaza Midwood location in August, she said.

She was disturbed by the “scare tactics” espoused by ordinance opponents, who said they feared the change would put children at risk of molestation in public restrooms. Ghazi, a single mother, said she empathized with single parents who feel stigmatized if they accompany their toddlers to opposite gender restrooms.

She’s heard from people with disabled children, parents or spouses. They say they can leave a restroom humiliated when patrons gawk at them, she said.

“I talked to my business partner and said, ‘I want us to be able to use our little voice here in this space to say we hear you, we support you, this is a safe place,’ ” Ghazi said.

Her restaurant’s unisex bathroom is in the back just across from the kitchen. When customers walk inside, they find two stalls with sturdy wooden doors and an eight-foot tall barrier that separates them. Both stalls have interior locks, and the bathroom’s proximity to a seating area and bar allows workers to keep an eye on who goes in and out.

“We have never had any instances of Peeping Toms,” Ghazi said.

My feelings are not going to be hurt and I’m not going to apologize that we aren’t your choice to come and eat.

Juli Ghazi, owner of Pure Pizza

While patronizing the Plaza Midwood restaurant last Saturday, Charlotte’s Larken Egleston put on Facebook a photo of a notice, signed by Ghazi, explaining the eatery has a unisex restroom because “sometimes gender-specific toilets put others into uncomfortable situations.”

The note, framed on a wall in the bathroom, lists LGBT people, single fathers with daughters, single mothers with sons, parents with disabled children and adults with aging parents who may be mentally or physically disabled as the people who benefit from gender-neutral restrooms.

On Egleston’s Facbeook page alone, the photo garnered over 2,300 “likes” and had been shared more than 630 times. He later shared the image on Twitter.

Overall, Ghazi said public reaction has been positive, although some on Facebook have said they refuse to patronize her restaurant. Ghazi’s other Pure Pizza location is in uptown’s 7th Street Public Market, where businesses don’t control bathroom policies.

Renewed traction?

Supporters of an expanded ordinance feel Pure Pizza’s bathroom could add fire to the push for more inclusion.

The religious right’s primary argument was that the businesses are not going to stand for it. I haven’t found that yet.

Janice Covington Allison, political activist

Janice Covington Allison, a transgender Democratic Party activist kicked out a female restroom in the government center last year, feels Ghazi’s notice reflects changing sentiments about unisex restrooms.

Small businesses especially are jumping on board, she said, “because they realize that you’re in business to make money, and if you run off part of your business, it isn’t productive.”

“The religious right’s primary argument was that the businesses are not going to stand for it,” said Allison, who plans to speak on the ordinance at an upcoming public meeting. “I haven’t found that yet.”

Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, said he’s not seen evidence that companies here widely discriminate against LGBT people, and he’s skeptical any restaurant, in particular, would do so. Harris was vocal in his opposition to parts of the ordinance last year. If the debate resurfaces, he said he would likely get involved.

“For the first time in our city’s history, it set up a group of people as a protected class based purely on how they choose to express themselves sexually,” he said. “That’s just, from my perspective, not necessary.”

Scott Bishop, chair of LGBT lobby group MeckPAC, said he plans to keep alive a campaign urging City Council to take up the ordinance this year.

“The failure of it to pass last March, I think, certainly opened people’s eyes a little more to where Charlotte is and is not,” he said.

Our intent is not to create an open mic where people shout at each other.

Dianne English, executive director of the Community Building Initiative

The bathroom debate inflamed passions but many people didn’t consider that the ordinance could prohibit discrimination based on familial status, such as if single fathers take their young daughters to the restroom, he said.

Exploring those nuances will be part of the February community forum which Community Building Initiative executive director Dianne English vows won’t be a traditional panel with experts. Instead, there will be handouts, resources and deliberate conversation about what’s at stake and what isn’t.

“There’s not a one-and-done on this,” she said. “Our intent is not to create an open mic where people shout at each other.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov