The Town of Chapel Hill became the third North Carolina municipality to pass an LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance on Jan. 13, following Carrboro and Hillsborough earlier that week.
The ordinance protects people from discrimination based on categories including sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in public spaces and employment.
“Most people think, if they're not LGBTQ, that there's already protections for LGBTQ people in public accommodations and employment,” Allison Scott, director of policy and programs at the Campaign for Southern Equality, said. “Basically, what this does is it just brings this belief into life.”
These three towns were able to pass this ordinance after the Dec. 1 expiration of a three-year provision in North Carolina that barred local governments from passing LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances.
A controversial history
In 2016, former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory passed the controversial House Bill 2, known commonly as the "bathroom bill," in response to a nondiscrimination ordinance passed in Charlotte.
HB2 made it illegal for cities to expand on nondiscrimination laws, which only banned discrimination based on sex assigned at birth. Additionally, it forced transgender people to use the bathroom that coordinated with their sex assigned at birth.
Gerry Cohen, an adjunct instructor at Duke University who worked for the N.C. General Assembly for 36 years, said there was debate about whether Charlotte was allowed to pass such a law.
“Some legal scholars said that Charlotte didn't really have any authority to pass that ordinance to begin with,” Cohen said. “North Carolina is relatively restrictive on what cities can do, that they can only do things the legislature has authorized to do.”
Following national backlash to HB2, Gov. Roy Cooper replaced the bill with House Bill 142 in 2017, which did little to remedy HB2.
Cohen said House Bill 142 simply watered down the provisions of HB2 following national backlash. However, he said the three-year expiration implies that local governments now have the authority to pass nondiscrimination ordinances–an authority that they did not have to begin with.
A step in the right direction
Carrboro Town Council member Damon Seils said these nondiscrimination ordinances are necessary.
“In North Carolina, you can be fired for being gay, you can be refused a job for being trans,” Seils said. “You can be refused service at a restaurant for looking or acting like what somebody thinks a gay person is.”
Scott, whose family has lived in North Carolina for generations, said she was impacted greatly by HB2 and HB142. As a transgender woman, she faced discrimination in both her workplace and public space.
According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 32 percent of respondents who held a job that year reported being fired, being denied a promotion or experienced some form of mistreatment based on their gender identity or expression.
Twenty-three percent of respondents who were perceived as transgender in college or vocational school were verbally, physically or sexually abused because of their gender identity, according to the survey. Twenty-two percent of respondents reported some form of housing discrimination that year, such as being evicted or denied a home because of their gender identity.
But Scott said she didn’t see the worst of it. She said people have to recognize the heightened violence against Black and Latinx transgender people.
“Even though I faced discrimination and had things happen to me, with my privilege of being a white person, at least my life wasn't taken like so many of my community members,” Scott said.
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, Black LGBTQ people are 1.4 times more likely to experience physical violence and two times more likely to experience threats and intimidation during incidents of hate violence.
Both Seils and Scott said that local legislation, like nondiscrimination ordinances, is a step in the right direction. They said these municipalities have real potential in creating positive change.
“Legislation like this at the local level is really a way of reflecting our community's values,” Seils said. “One of the things that doing this in our community can do is set an example and send a message not only to people here in Carrboro, but also to people throughout North Carolina.”
But Scott said it is better to reflect on all marginalized groups when passing these nondiscrimination ordinances. She said in the long run, taking time to evaluate all categories, such as race, age and class would be better for local governments than quickly following suit.
“For myself and my community, I want these in place as quickly as possible. I'd love to see some more reflection,” Scott said. “We really encourage cities to look at these laws, not just for LGBTQ, but address these racial issues that have been plaguing our cities for decades.”
Seils said progress is not linear, and there will still be ups and downs. For now, he said Orange County has set an important example for local governments in North Carolina.
“I don't think that every day is going to be better than the next,” Seils said, “but at least for today, I think we've taken a step in the right direction.”
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