Politics & Government

As Charlotte Pride opens, here’s a look at 50 years of legal battles for LGBTQ rights

Charlotte’s Pride festival this month will celebrate the visibility and empowerment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The city’s annual Pride Week begins Aug. 9, including a festival Aug. 17-18 and wrapping up with a parade Aug. 18.

A liberal-leaning city on the edge of the Bible Belt, Charlotte has a long and complicated history on gay rights. Its cultural and social milestones are extensive, but so are the legal gains and losses. Here’s a look at Charlotte’s LGBTQ history through a legal perspective:

1961: An early transgender rights victory

Decades before the House Bill 2 controversy, Maxine Doyle Perkins — assigned male at birth but presented as female — was arrested for having sex with a man in Charlotte in 1961.

Josh Burford, former UNC Charlotte professor and co-founder of the Alabama-based Invisible Histories Project on southern queer history, said it’s unclear whether she used the label “transgender.” But historical accounts show she primarily identified as female.

Perkins pleaded not guilty, donning a dress at trial and refusing to answer to “Max,” which the judge and prosecutor kept calling her. She received a sentence to a male prison — court officials wouldn’t acknowledge her gender identity — of 20 to 30 years, the longest sentence on record for that crime in state history.

A federal judge later overturned the conviction for lack of a fair trial. In his written opinion, Judge J. B. Craven criticized North Carolina’s sodomy statute, which had origins in 16th-century English laws and considered sexual activity between members of the same sex a “crime against nature.” Craven also suggested Perkins’ sentencing was cruel and unusual punishment.

Media outlets from The Charlotte Observer to Time Magazine covered the ruling. Perkins was retried — wearing men’s clothing — and acquitted in 1964 after three years in prison. In 1965, at the next state legislative session after Craven’s ruling, the N.C. General Assembly reduced its mandatory five- to 60-year penalty for homosexuality to between four months and 10 years.

1973: A rare fight against sodomy charges

Norfleet Jarrell, a UNC Charlotte instructor, was charged with sodomy along with seven other men in a Freedom Park sting operation, according to a May 1973 Observer article. Police officers — observing through a ceiling peephole — arrested Jarrell and his companion in the park’s bathroom. Out of the seven individuals, one committed suicide and five entered a plea bargain, but Jarrell and his codefendant fought the charges. Burford said it was uncommon at the time for gay men to challenge sex offense charges, often fearing job loss and public humiliation.

According to letters by late local activist and Observer employee Don King, Jarrell was sentenced to seven to 10 years of imprisonment. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction multiple times and went to prison in 1979, according to court documents.

Jarrell then sought clemency from then Gov. Jim Hunt, who commuted his sentence. He walked free in 1980, according to prison records.

1970s-1990s: Police entrapment operations

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s — and even into the early 2000s — police often employed entrapment methods to arrest gay men who “cruised” public parks in search of sex partners. Cruising was common at the time because gay men had few public places to meet other gay men, said local activist and psychologist Bob Barret.

Barret said LGBTQ activists didn’t endorse public sex but opposed the methods used by law enforcement to target gay men. Charlotte’s LGBTQ newspaper Q-Notes frequently covered the sting operations, describing undercover police who would hide out to catch men in the act or flirtatiously approach individuals and arrest them once sex was mentioned, on charges of soliciting a “crime against nature.”

Some sting operations were especially large. A September 1988 Observer article reported the arrest of around 25 men in Freedom Park over the course of two weeks. In February to March of 1995, undercover police arrested 31 men at Park Road Park and Queen City Video, an adult bookstore, over a four-week period, according to a Q-Notes article at the time. The operations prompted activists like King to initiate meetings and establish task forces in the late ‘80s and ‘90s to improve relations between the LGBTQ community and Charlotte police, with varying degrees of success.

1992: Sexual orientation and the city’s anti-bias policy

The Citizens for Human Rights, a group of local activists led by Barret, advocated for the addition of sexual orientation to the Charlotte’s anti-discrimination policy in 1992. The city ordinance already prohibited discrimination in public places on the basis of race, religion and sex.

Introduced by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee in coordination with activists, the proposal sparked a firestorm of debate, according to a November 1992 Observer article. The city council rejected it in a 7-4 vote.

1996: ‘Angels in America’ controversy

The Charlotte Repertory Company’s production of “Angels in America” — Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play exploring LGBTQ life in the 1980s — debuted amid protests and national media attention, according to a March 1996 Observer article.

Religious and conservative groups, as well as city and county officials, claimed the drama’s inclusion of simulated sex and a male nudity scene — in which an AIDS patient briefly undresses at a hospital — violated the state’s indecent exposure laws.

But threats to arrest cast members for public indecency were futile. Less than three hours before “Angels in America” debuted, a court order blocked the city police, county sheriff, district attorney and others from interfering with the show’s 10-day run in Charlotte.

The following year, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners retaliated by cutting $2.5 million from the Arts & Science Council, which had financed the production. But the Observer reported in February 1999 that the funding had been restored.

1999: Local teen challenges her play’s ban

Samantha Gellar, then a junior at Northwest School of the Arts, found herself in the midst of a censorship debate over her play about a lesbian love story. The Observer reported in February 1999 that Gellar’s “Life Versus the Paperback Romance” had won a contest, along with five other entries, to be performed at the Charlotte Young Playwrights Festival.

But the sponsoring Children’s Theater of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools deemed her drama’s exploration of sexual orientation inappropriate to stage, sparking a national media storm. Gellar, who had come out as a lesbian several years prior, called the ban discriminatory.

With the help of the LGBTQ support group Time Out Youth and the ACLU of North Carolina, Gellar staged a professional reading of “Life” at the Great Aunt Stella Center in Charlotte, with 400 people in attendance. The Public Theater in New York City later produced a sold-out reading of her drama.

2005: Mecklenburg County protects LGBTQ employees

Parks Helms, the then Mecklenburg County Commissioners chairman, introduced a resolution to add sexual orientation to the county’s nondiscrimination policy on employment, broadening a list that included race, religion, sex, age and national origin. He sparked a heated debate, drawing criticism from Republican commissioners.

The proposal laid out new protections for LGBTQ county employees, prohibiting discrimination in hiring and personnel decisions on the basis of sexual orientation. In May 2005, county commissioners approved the measure in a 6-3 vote.

2016: LGBTQ city ordinance and the HB2 controversy

Charlotte City Council approved a measure in February 2016 to include sexual orientation, marital status and gender identity in its anti-discrimination ordinance. The revisions, approved in a 7-4 vote, would have expanded protections for LGBTQ individuals in public places and employment — and specifically allowed transgender individuals to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity.

In response, state lawmakers passed House Bill 2 the following month, blocking local governments from enacting protections for LGBTQ individuals. What some people called the “bathroom bill” not only reversed Charlotte’s ordinance but also required people to use restrooms and locker rooms in state buildings based on their sex assigned at birth. Then-Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law.

After national debate and boycotts of North Carolina, the state legislature passed House Bill 142 in a partial HB2 repeal in 2017. Last month, a federal judge approved a settlement between the state and LGBTQ rights groups like the ACLU that said HB142’s language was not strong enough. The settlement said state agencies and universities can’t ban transgender people from using public restrooms of the gender with which they identify in state government buildings.