The town of Carrboro passed protections for those who identify as LGBTQ because federal action has stalled. (Image via Town of Carrboro/Instagram) More protections needed.
The town of Carrboro passed protections for those who identify as LGBTQ because federal action has stalled. (Image via Town of Carrboro/Instagram)

This mayor explains why her town passed protections for LGBTQ people, and why more protections are needed.

My favorite class in middle school was civics. 

I loved studying the three branches of the federal government. The judicial, executive, and legislative branches all have defined purposes and duties, bound together by a flexible balance of interconnectivity. I still explore these concepts with the law students I teach at NC Central University today. 

However, I did not realize as a young, idealistic girl how personally the charges of these branches of government would affect me. 

When I realized I was gay, the discrimination embedded in daily life became painfully apparent. The government seemed to perpetuate unfair treatment under the law, and none of the branches seemed interested in making it better.  

North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, will have a choice to make soon when it comes to standing up for equal treatment of those who identify as LGBTQ. The Equality Act passed the US House of Representatives earlier this year and, if passed by the Senate, would bring sweeping changes to provide protections from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Taking Action in Orange County

I am now the mayor of Carrboro, in Orange County and this year, our town council voted unanimously to enact a local ordinance protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. We did that because we lack these protections at the state and federal levels. 

Other local governments, such as Durham, Greensboro, and most recently Winston-Salem, also passed non-discrimination ordinances, and others plan to follow. This is a significant turnaround from the many years that the NC General Assembly passed a law that outright preempted local governments from passing nondiscrimination ordinances. 

Twenty-nine other states in our country also do not have statewide protections of this sort. However, the situation is improving, thanks to the work of the three branches of government that so fascinated me as a child. 

Through a series of US Supreme Court cases over the past two decades, the courts in the judicial branch are increasingly affirming the rights of LGBTQ people to live their lives openly and fully with dignity in the public sphere. Last year, the Court ruled in the Bostock v. Clayton County decision that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This meant businesses of 15 or more employees can no longer able to openly discriminate against applicants or employees because a person is gay, or their gender.s. 

How Presidents Backed LGBTQ Rights

During his time heading up the executive branch, President Barack Obama made great strides toward eradicating discrimination against the LGBTQ community. He chose not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and supported marriage equality. He also targeted policies affecting housing and education. 

President Biden shares this interest in protecting LGBTQ people and on his first day in office ordered broad implementation of the Bostock ruling to expand LGBTQ protections in housing, credit, and more.

Now Federal Lawmakers Need to Act 

Now, in 2021, it is time for the third branch of government, the legislative branch, to act. The Equality Act, a version of which has been introduced every session since the 1970s, was approved last month by the US House of Representatives, for the second time in less than two years. It had a first-ever committee hearing in the US Senate, and now our Senators must take action and at last approve this legislation. 

The Equality Act would close the current gaps in federal nondiscrimination protections and ensure no one faces discrimination because of who they are. 

It addresses areas like jury selection and service, housing, and education. It would also establish LGBTQ protections from discrimination in places offering goods and services to the public. Similar to laws passed in the 1960s to make certain businesses open to everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, the Equality Act rests on the proposition that if a business or proprietor wants to operate in the public arena, they need to serve everyone in that public arena. There are exceptions under the law for entities that are religious, such as churches and synagogues.

The US Congress is the branch of government that represents all of the people. Building on progress made in the judicial and executive branches, the US Senate should join the House in proudly passing the Equality Act as soon as possible. 

I urge North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis to look at the momentum for LGBTQ protections happening right now in our own state, as communities such as Carrboro and Greensboro take action to protect their LGBTQ residents. It’s well past time.   

If I could go back in time and visit that young girl in civics class, I would tell her that this system of government that we have in the United States – the three branches, exercising their powers under the US Constitution – is not perfect, and it does not make or enact changes quickly. 

However, I would earnestly share with her that progress is coming. I would tell her that the three branches are gradually chipping away at discrimination so that her country can be a place where she (and those who follow) can truly live their lives with dignity.