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OPINION: The Charlotte NDO – Third Time’s the Charm

Former Mayor Jennifer Roberts shares her thoughts on last night's vote

nondiscrimination ordinance, anti-trans bills
Hunter Schafer (left) and Miquel Rodrigues of Raleigh protest the North Carolina General Assembly passage of HB2 known as “the bathroom bill” during a special session in 2016. (Photo by James Willamor)

Charlotte has passed a non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) – again. It has been five years since the first successful vote to add protections for the LGBTQ+ community (there was also a failed NDO vote in 2015), and we all remember the damaging response from our N.C. General Assembly in the passing of HB2.

People I spoke with who opposed it then (apart from the religious objectors who clearly have not been reading the “love your neighbor as yourself” Bible passage) focused on two things. First was a fear about bathroom assaults. This was based on a fantastical narrative of something that has virtually never happened: that men would dress as women to use the women’s bathroom for purposes of assault and rape.

That was why it was called “the bathroom bill,” because it spelled out who could and who could not use which restroom. One legislator and mother of small children, Tricia Cotham, got it amended by reminding all those men that mothers often have to bring their young sons into the restroom with them – which would have violated the law, had they not amended it to include that exclusion.

The second was a firm belief that businesses should be allowed to choose their customers. I was told this by several (conservative) business owners. I informed them that the non-discrimination ordinance focused on public accommodations – restaurants, hotels, taxis and the like – that are supposed to serve the public at large. As the bumper sticker says, “Y’all Means All.”

Then I would ask, “Well, what if you do not want to serve Black customers? Is that right?” They would then mumble something about, “Well that’s different,” and it is different because Black customers are protected by federal law.

At that time, the LGBTQ+ community had no federal protections. That changed in June this past year, when the current conservative Supreme Court ruled that Title IX’s protections from employment discrimination based on “sex” included the LGBTQ+ community. It was a great victory for equality, although many people were so focused on the challenges of COVID-19 it probably did not get the notice it deserved.

But that Supreme Court decision made it much easier for the Republicans on city council – and one conservative Democrat, Greg Phipps (who voted against it last time) – to join in unanimous support for a new non-discrimination ordinance. In addition, the bathroom clause passed by the state still remains in force. It prohibits local governments from regulating the use of “multiple occupancy restrooms, showers or changing facilities.” 

With those two changes, it was really a no-brainer to support equal treatment for the LGBTQ+ community. There is even a religious exemption for the protections, one that could prove to be a large carve-out for discrimination. And unlike other North Carolina cities, there are no real penalties in place in the Charlotte NDO for those caught discriminating.

There were a few added benefits, however. The council added familial status, pregnancy and natural hairstyle to the Charlotte NDO, and that was an important win for many who have been called out for their braids. It also expanded employment protections to any size business, large and small, and included those businesses who contract with the city. 

There is no doubt that many people in Charlotte are feeling a bit more included and welcome today. I thank all the members of the city council for supporting this long overdue ordinance, and hope that they get many emails echoing this thanks. It is heartening to see society moving forward in accepting our LGBTQ+ neighbors, and valuing and respecting a group that has long lived in fear of exclusion and violence. 

We have more work to do on equality and equity to right the past wrongs of exclusion and discrimination, but it is good to take a moment to celebrate small victories. Last night was one such victory. I am glad to have been part of the movement that led to this moment, by championing the 2016 Charlotte NDO as mayor. Now, I plan to be part of the continued struggle for equality and equity for all. It may be that the arc of the moral universe “bends toward justice,” but we know it takes effort from all of us to make sure.

Jennifer Roberts served as mayor of Charlotte from 2015 to 2017.

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