I hopped off the plane at LAX last Thursday not really knowing what to expect. I was going to California to attend the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute’s LGBT Leaders Conference not feeling very optimistic about the state of LGBT rights in my state. I was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council exactly a year ago today. Since them, I have seen a referendum pass that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman, as well as a new Governor and General Assembly elected who are unlikely to be sympathetic to the concerns of LGBT North Carolinians. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and don’t always plan on the experience as being a particularly constructive one. This time was different.
LGBT Leaders was an eye-opening experience to the collective power that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered citizens have in our county and world. The conference brought together advocates, elected officials, and other leaders from the LGBT community to discuss local policy efforts around homeless youth and healthcare reform, how to tackle anti-discrimination campaigns in the 50 states, and next steps for policy efforts in DC.
Chapel Hill is fortunate to be a leader when it comes to gay rights. When Joe Herzenberg was elected to our town council in the 1980’s, he was the first openly gay elected official in our state. Mark Kleinschmidt has served as mayor since 2009, and our simultaneous service makes Chapel Hill one of the smallest municipalities in the country to have two openly gay elected officials on their governing body.
Being surrounded by a group of people with a shared sexual orientation impacted me in a way I did not expect. Even though I live in North Carolina, I’m fortunate to have lived in communities where I never felt threatened or in danger because of my sexual orientation. That was not true for some of the leaders I spoke with at this conference. I left feeling a sense of responsibility and obligation to our broader movement. LGBT Representation matters—and not just in elected office. It’s important that we have leaders in business, religious institutions, and popular culture that reflect the full identity of our state. Over and over again, I heard from participants (particularly those who experienced the AIDS crisis) that seeing openly LGBT leaders in public discourse impacted them emotionally and improved their own individual self-worth.
I came back from LGBT Leaders personally renewed and excited about the work to be done in North Carolina. After conversations at the conference, I’m sure more than ever that we are capable of creating equality in our state. We need to support elected officials who stand for equality and vote against those who do not. We need to encourage community groups that are working to support queer youth and adults.
Finally, we need more openly gay LGBT elected-officials in our state. We are fortunate to have a small number, but we need more. Call it the “Will & Grace effect”—Seeing likeable gay characters on TV, knowing a friend or colleague who identifies as LGBT, or living in a city run by a lesbian mayor all change public opinion. It took a trip to California to re-energize me for the work we need to do here in North Carolina, and I can not wait for what comes next.