Chapel Hill has long been an oasis of liberal thinking… at least in the mind of North Carolina’s conservative pundits.
These days, as the state moves away from the legacy of such right-wing figures as Sen. Jesse Helms, the city and surrounding communities are working to become a vacation and relocation destination for the GLBT community, and are busy touting their gay-friendly successes in the political and other arenas to hammer home their point.
“There was a time when it was said of Chapel Hill that there was a communist and/or a homosexual behind every tree,” said John Short, one of the organizers of North Carolina Pride. “But in fact there has been a lesbian and gay group at UNC Chapel Hill since 1975, and we have had openly gay elected officials for many years now.
Two of those officials, Mike Nelson and Mark Kleinschmidt, also highlight how the area has become even more welcoming of not only gay and lesbian tourists, but also gay-friendly businesses and residents.
“The area continues to become even more progressive, and that is having an impact both here and at the state level,” said Nelson,
currently an Orange County Commissioner and a former mayor of nearby Carrboro. “The gay community is very definitely heard here.”
“The change we are seeing here is expected of us, because we really are expected to lead the South,” added Kleinschmidt, a Chapel Hill council member and candidate for mayor.
Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough make up the three population centers of Orange County, and each play their own role in fostering the growth of GLBT-friendly policies for the overall community, said Lydia Lavelle, a Carrboro alderman.
“We are slowly doing away with the old prejudices through legal and policy means,” Lavelle said. “We have nine out officials in the state, and Carrboro was the first city in the state to offer domestic-partner benefits, and also had the first openly gay mayor in Mike Nelson. We are now continuing to work at the state level to end laws regarding housing discrimination so that we can be even more inclusive at the local level.”
Affairs at the capital in nearby Raleigh are a more mixed bag, but there have been some notable successes in stymieing legislation that would negatively affect the community, said attorney Sharon Thompson.
“We are the only Southern state that doesn’t have a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage,” Thompson said. “We still need to repeal and rewrite our family law to deal with custody and other issues, but we’re working on that.”
Thompson and Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality NC, say that custodial-rights, inheritance and other issues will continue to drive some negative legislation at the state level, but that the state’s history of strong civil-rights legislation should help carry the day eventually.
“We have been able to block the anti-gay marriage amendment, which gets proposed every year, thanks to Joe Hackney, who is speaker of the state House of Representatives and is from Chapel Hill,” Palmquist said. “But we have moved beyond the defensive with two bills; one was the School Violence Prevention Act, which is a bullying policy including acts motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity, which was the first time those categories have been written into state law. The other was the Healthy Youth Act, which dropped abstinence- only education and added mostly nondiscriminatory language to sex- education policy.”
In the end, North Carolina faces the same issues as many Southern states, but with a strong corps of GLBT residents and elected officials, the state and its communities can continue to not only make headway, but to provide a laboratory for how to get things done that neighboring states and advocacy groups can copy, noted Joanne Fiore, editor in chief of the Journal of Accountancy for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the chair of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.
“This is a good community in terms of it being a college town, and the college’s having policies that can expand into the city and state’s policies and procedures,” Fiore said. We’re also working to bring more people here to visit and to live, because this is a very open and welcoming community.”