Gays in Charlotte, N.C., strive for community cohesion as they struggle to get back on track after a virulent 1997.
Originally published in The Advocate.
CHARLOTTE, N.C., PRIDES ITSELF on being the best of the New South. The nation’s second-largest banking center, it’s a booming city of 60-story skyscrapers, historic neighborhoods, and suburbs that stretch to the South Carolina line. And as a city of 470,000 that integrated peacefully, then elected a black mayor, it invites constant comparisons to Atlanta. “There is nothing stopping us from being the next Southern city to host the Olympic Games,” says Hugh McColl, chief executive officer of the locally based NationsBank.
But in the past year local officials have tarnished Charlotte’s reputation for civility by making homosexuality the area’s top political issue. Since last spring the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, which governs Charlotte and its environs, has slashed arts funding, restricted sex counseling, and thrown out its own chairman, all in the name of protecting residents from their gay neighbors. While elected leaders have portrayed homosexuals as child molesters and “golden boys,” Charlotte’s gay community has been unable to pull together an effective response.
Meanwhile, the primary election for the county commission is two months away. The field in the May 5 primary will include 31-year-old Andrew Reyes, an openly gay businessman who has vowed to shift the focus away from sex and back to education and growth issues. Reyes says that while local politicians debate the morality of homosexuality, Charlotte’s schools are falling apart for lack of attention.
“It’s very sad that some of the schools haven’t been renovated for 30-something years,” Reyes says. “The paint is peeling. Wires are hanging from ceilings.” And like the schools, he adds, the local political scene is in a shambles. The commission majority “wants to take us back 20 years. But I really don’t think these five people represent how the county really feels.”
After the general election in November 1996, few voters realized they had elected a commission that would align itself with the Christian right. After, all Democrats still held a 5-4 majority, and they elected as their chairman Parks Helms, a stalwart liberal. Lesbians and gay men, focused on defeating U.S. senator Jesse Helms, hadn’t even paid attention to the local races.
But within a month of the election came the first signs of trouble, when freshman Democrat Hoyle Martin signaled that he would vote with the Republican minority on issues involving homosexuality. “If I had my way, we’d shove these people off the face of the earth,” he told The Charlotte Observer newspaper. In a January interview with The Advocate, Martin listed a number of reasons he believes homosexuality is wrong:
“Number 1, it’s normal. Number 2, it’s not natural. Number 3, it’s a major cause of AIDS…. Number 4, their clear objective is to seduce and have sex with young children” to keep the gay population from dwindling.
Last April, Martin got his chance to legislate his antigay views. Upset that the tax-supported Charlotte Repertory Theatre had presented Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Martin and the Republicans proposed to eliminate county funding to the arts and science council, an umbrella organization that supports local cultural groups. The proposal to wipe out the council’s $2.5 million in funding drew a standing-room-only audience to the April 1 board of commissioners meeting. The crowd of 700 included arts patrons, lesbians and gay men, and members of the Right. But the evening’s biggest surprise was the strong turnout by corporate leaders, who feared that the arts cuts and underlying homophobia would undermine Charlotte’s business climate.
“Take a deep breath, so deep you can smell history,” said NationsBank executive Joe Martin in a speech that drew a standing ovation. “There’s a stench in this government chamber, and it is centuries old. It is the smell of burning thatch in Scotland. It is the smell of burning flesh in France and in Germany in this century. It is the smell of burning books in Boston. It is the smell of burning branding irons in Charleston. It is the smell of burning crosses in Charlotte. It is the smell of government rotting in the abuse of its power, all in the name of religion.”
Still, after six hours of testimony, the commissioners voted 5-4 to cut council funding, with Hoyle Martin and the Republicans forming a bloc that would later be called the “Gang of Five.”
The response from the gay community was immediate. Reyes, who had not previously been involved in local politics, announced his plans to run for the commission. And the week of the April vote, more than 200 lesbians and gay men attended a “town meeting,” where they vented their anger and brainstormed responses. From the meeting emerged the Charlotte Pride Alliance, which was supposed to become the city’s first permanent gay political organization.
But the alliance never got off the ground. It got stuck on issues such as bylaws and organizational structure. Personalities clashed. Views of inclusiveness conflicted. “We had guys in three-piece suits coming in and saying, ‘We don’t want to include the fringes: the bisexuals, the Lesbian Avengers, the flaming faggots,'” recalls Concetta Caliendo, an alliance founder.
Meanwhile, the commissioners continued wreaking havoc. First, Republican Bill James announced that Charlotte Repertory producer and managing director Keith Martin was a gay “flaming liberal for the avant-garde.” (Martin is straight, married, and Republican—although he’s a Republican, he says, so he can vote against the party’s extreme candidates in the primaries.) Then the Gang of Five enacted a policy requiring county-funded counselors to get parents’ permission before discussing sex or sexuality with teenagers.
Finally, in December, the conservative majority ousted Parks Helms as chairman. Helping lead the coup was Hoyle Martin, who was upset because Helms had encouraged gay candidate Reyes. “The homosexual agenda is part of a broad cultural transformation which seeks to make Charlotte the Sodom and Gomorrah capital of the east coast,” Martin wrote in a letter to Helms. Martin also described Reyes as a “gay, rich golden boy.”
Although the Charlotte Pride Alliance wasn’t around to protest the coup, a new group, the Mecklenburg Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee, has formed to urge lesbians and gay men to vote in the primary and general elections; defeating the conservative commissioners is a major goal, says cochairman Phil Wells. The group will work closely with the North Carolina Pride PAC and hopes to mobilize straight allies as well, Wells adds.
Observers say straight progressives and corporate leaders are likely to be involved in the fight against the Gang of Five. Rolfe Neill, who retired in January as publisher of The Charlotte Observer, was part of an earlier coalition of business people who spoke out against homophobia at last April’s fateful meeting. “The homosexuals have been astonished because never has there been such a united front on their behalf,” says Neill, whose newspaper offers benefits for same-sex partners. “But all of us have homosexual employees and friends and relatives who negate what Hoyle Martin and some of the others have been saying. ”
Besides, Neill adds, the city has a reputation to repair: “Charlotte is going to have to make up its mind about whether it wants to live with this image. If we don’t say what we feel, we’ll get what we deserve.”