It’s Charlotte’s turn, again, for an LGBT battle

The Observer editorial board

A Houston man urges people to vote against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
A Houston man urges people to vote against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. AP

Two cities, in two elections, provided one telling intersection last week in America’s latest fight for equality.

One election, in Charlotte, resulted in a new City Council poised to reintroduce an anti-discrimination ordinance that includes protections for transgender people. The other election, in Houston, shows how challenging that battle will be.

In Charlotte, voters elected Democrats to the council’s four at-large seats, ensuring the same 9-2 majority as the previous council. The difference this time is at-large members Michael Barnes and David Howard – who in March voted against at least of some of the anti-discrimination ordinance – will leave the council in December. They’ll be replaced by Julie Eiselt and James “Smuggie” Mitchell, who’ve said they’d support expanding protections to the LGBT community.

In Houston, however, anti-LGBT activists showed how to defeat such an ordinance. After that city’s council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) 18 months ago, opponents of the ordinance gathered enough signatures to get a referendum on the issue in front of voters last week.

The activists also launched a distasteful campaign that characterized the ordinance, which protected 15 classes of people, as a vehicle for sex offenders to prey on children in bathrooms. It worked: voters rejected HERO by a 22-point margin last Tuesday.

The same could happen here. Even if Charlotte’s City Council passed a new anti-discrimination ordinance, voters across the city could get their say on it. All it would take is the conservative N.C. General Assembly passing a local act allowing for a referendum.

At the least, a reintroduction of the ordinance would result in the same debate that roiled Charlotte back in March. It will be uncomfortable. It will bring out the worst in some of us.

But Charlotte’s City Council shouldn’t shy away from the discussion, or the fight.

Instead, council members should remind the public that most large cities offer protections for the LGBT community, and that we look comparatively regressive to the businesses, young workers and big events that might be looking our way.

They should also note that while opponents of anti-discrimination ordinances like to make them all about the bathrooms, there are no documented cases of perverts taking advantage of such ordinances to poke around women’s bathrooms or pursue children. None.

That is, by the way, the same kind of scary diversion anti-gay activists long used in their fight against laws protecting the rights of homosexuals. It’s just as hateful now.

More and more, Americans are realizing this. The day before the Houston vote, the U.S. Department of Education supported a transgender student in Illinois who wanted to use the school restrooms and locker room. Also last week, the Maryland State Department of Education issued guidelines for schools so that they can support transgender and gender non-conforming students.

As with many minorities, the fight for equality will be rocky. But those hard steps have to be taken. Those difficult conversations should be welcomed, not avoided. It’s Charlotte’s turn, again.