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Is the local gay rights movement over?

Policy reform would suggest so, but advocates say otherwise

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On a recent Tuesday evening, dozens of LGBT community members and leaders gathered at a private home to meet with elected officials and candidates running for City Council. Over wine and hors d'oeuvres, leaders of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee announced the results of their annual candidate questionnaire — which asks candidates to weigh in on topics like non-discrimination measures and their commitment to marriage equality — and released their endorsements.

MeckPAC hosted 12 candidates for office that night, including Mayor Patsy Kinsey and incumbent council members John Autry, Claire Fallon, Billy Maddalon and LaWana Mayfield. In all, 22 candidates — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarian and Independent — decided to return MeckPAC's candidate questionnaire this year. It's the most — and the most positive — feedback the group has ever received and the first time the group has endorsed candidates in each political party.

"It's amazing just how far our community has come and how far our candidates have come in understanding our issues," MeckPAC Chairman Scott Bishop told the crowd, saying that his group won't issue warnings about any of the 22 candidates like it has in the past when it's encountered politicians who don't support the LGBT community.

Anti-gay organizations have long claimed LGBT people are not disadvantaged minorities, in part because of the political power and influence they have amassed. At the local level, that power is palpable. Both the city and county have advanced LGBT-inclusive measures, such as employment non-discrimination policies and domestic-partner benefits. City Council includes not one, but two openly gay and lesbian members. Kinsey, in particular, has been a familiar face at LGBT community events throughout the year.

Those significant policy changes beg the question: Is Charlotte's gay rights movement over?

"Absolutely not," Sarah Demarest said with a quick and resounding tone. Demarest is a founding attorney at Charlotte's new Freedom Center for Social Justice LGBTQ Law Center. Demarest assists mostly low-income LGBT people facing evictions and other housing problems, transgender people seeking name changes, and others who have challenges accessing equitable healthcare options due to discrimination. Resources and easy solutions are few and far between, since policy reform at the city and county level doesn't help non-government employees.

For Demarest and others, the struggle for equality within the LGBT community and other oppressed groups isn't mutually exclusive. The LGBT justice movement will never be truly over as long as institutionalized systems of oppression exist and continue to affect everyone, not just gay people. LGBT students will still face higher-than-average disciplinary problems at school and people of color, including those who are LGBT, will still face a criminal justice system that too often unfairly targets them.

"You can change the law to say or mandate that you have to treat people better, but that does not impact the culture and the systems that impact people," she said.

Demarest recently joined MeckPAC as one of its steering committee members. She said the group's work on policy change alone won't help LGBT people of color, those who are poor and the transgender community. "If you don't have food, you don't have a job or place to lay your head at night," she said, "what good is a non-discrimination policy?"

LGBT-inclusive policy progress in local government has largely been a result of goals and objectives of an already privileged few, said Lacey Williams, director of advocacy at the Latin American Coalition. For her and other activists, the local LGBT movement's successes are laudable but need to focus more on the day-to-day issues faced by minorities within the LGBT community.

Marriage is an "important cultural touchstone," she said, but advocates also need to pay attention to other issues affecting the poor, immigrants and people of color. Poverty and criminal justice issues, for example, disproportionately affect both gay and straight people. Job protections and health benefits for government employees won't stem the tide of discrimination elsewhere.

"I think the thing in our city is that most of the LGBT organizing around policy has been led by white, middle-class, cisgender people, and so that really colors what the objectives are," Williams said. "If those are the people leading, then, yeah, when you get that goal it is sort of over."

She said intersectional and cooperative advocacy — working with natural allies within non-LGBT communities of color, for example — is needed to expand the LGBT movement and bring new attention on issues not commonly discussed within the LGBT community, such as poverty. Williams is spearheading that advocacy work at the Latin American Coalition, where she helps organize young people and other community members to raise awareness on the broken immigration system, family separation and the economic challenges of immigrants, gay and straight. At work, she often meets young Latino LGBT people who face dangers both physical and economic. Government-employee protections won't benefit a gay or transgender youth attacked on the street or help them gain employment where non-discrimination measures do not exist.

"You can have incredible policies as a city and a county, but what happens on the day to day to LGBT people who are not employed by the city?" Williams asks. "There has to be this sort of ongoing conversation and cultural shift that can only happen if we have a strong, unified community that sees LGBT people of color as part of the LGBT community."

Bishop hopes MeckPAC can begin to affect larger change for residents. His group wants a local human-rights ordinance adding sexual orientation and gender identity to protections in housing, employment and public accommodations and places, such as hotels and restaurants. The group is also starting to pay attention to suburban towns and cities in Mecklenburg County, none of which include protections for LGBT workers or residents. For the first time this year, the group endorsed a mayoral candidate outside of Charlotte: incumbent Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain.

But legally, the city and county may not be able to affect change through county-wide human rights ordinances. Other towns, like Carrboro and Chapel Hill, have had to request permission to do so through bills at the state legislature. None have passed. Bishop is hoping to try anyway, and Williams thinks local LGBT advocates' push for change can at least begin to raise awareness and include formerly excluded voices. She said the immigrant youth movement is producing "some feisty LGBT youth leaders who have been elevating Latino and particularly undocumented voices." The old guard, she said, needs to work more with new, emerging leaders.

Bishop knows the issues Williams fights for get overshadowed. He blames it partly on the news cycle. Big stories, like the summer's marriage cases at the Supreme Court, blotted out any coverage of efforts to pass a federal employment non-discrimination bill. A version of that bill has been introduced in nearly every session of Congress since the 1990s, to no avail.

Additionally, Bishop said Charlotte's LGBT community is missing a group focused on education, community building and "creating more welcoming environments for people who live here."

Demarest said the Freedom Center is doing some of that ground-level education work. It works to inform community members of their rights. Demarest says other groups, such as the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte and the Charlotte Business Guild, have approached her with questions on how they can begin to tackle issues like poverty and inclusion of transgender people and LGBT people of color.

However, Williams thinks it will take much more outspoken, grassroots activism and commitment to diversity and social justice from all the city's LGBT organizations. She said people have to "get your hands dirty and speak out."

"We have the tools," Williams said. "We just have to have the will."

This article is provided in partnership with QNotes, Charlotte's LGBT community newspaper. Learn and read more at goqnotes.com.

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