As I've been reading about the new law in North Carolina that rolls back non-discrimination ordinances, I can't stop thinking about a similar conflict that took place back in 1997.
That was the year that Charlotte's Arts and Science Council supported the staging of Angels In America, the Pulitzer-winning play about the AIDS epidemic. The Board of County Commissioners attacked the group for "supporting the homosexual agenda" and stripped them of their funding. The decision was explicitly homophobic, and one Commissioner said, "If I had my way, we'd shove these people off the face of the earth."
Around the same time, the Board of Commissioners also voted to give their highest citizenship award to Joe Martin.
Martin was a community leader in Charlotte, a businessman with a scholar's curiosity and wit (and a PhD in medieval literature). He was the son of a minister, an elder at his church, and was widely admired for his work to improve race relations in the South. He voted Independent, his brother had been the Republican Governor of N.C., and respect for Joe was non-partisan and broad.
He suffered from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), and he couldn't walk or speak easily. But he asked to address the Commissioners. He was wheeled before them and struggled to stand at the podium. And in front of 700 people, this is what he said:
What, in the name of heaven, are you doing to this town? This debate is not about the arts, is it? This is about something more fundamental. Ironically, I am that 'traditional American family' you keep talking about. [But] take a deep breath.... There's a stench in this government chamber... It's the smell of government rotting in the abuse of its power, all in the name of religion. And the time to stand up to that government is not when they come for me, but when they go after the first of my neighbors that they perceive to be weak. When the word goes out into this dark night that 'they have come for the gays,' what do you think the people will do? Will they close their shutters and turn out the lights and put up yard signs that say, 'It's OK, I'm not gay?' Or will they come out and light candles in the darkness and join hands with their neighbors and stare this government down, telling you to take your torches and back off?
And then, in answer to his own question, he said to the Commissioners assembled in front of him, "Back off!" And he rejected their award.
That was nearly 20 years ago, when America's attitudes about homosexuality were different from today. So it startled the Commissioners to hear this rebuke from a mainstream city father. And it startled a lot of other Charlotteans as well. Joe Martin was my father-in-law, and I have met many people who've told me that reading his comments in the press forced them to think, for the first time, about how their government was treating their gay and lesbian neighbors.
Today, Charlotte is a different city. This year, it passed the anti-discrimination ordinances that prompted the state legislature to enact its anti-anti-discrimination law.
But the tactics being used by the governor and state legislature are the same ones that the Commission used back in 1997.
If Joe Martin were alive today, I think I know what he would say to the governor and legislature: This debate is not about bathrooms, is it? It's about something more fundamental. It's about legalizing and legitimizing discrimination. It's about whipping up hatred and fear of a minority.
I think he might point out that the N.C. Legislature's power is the result of some of the most distortive gerrymandering in America, and their actions do not represent North Carolina. The bill was jammed through in an "emergency" session, without debate or public comment, because its sponsors knew it could not withstand scrutiny.
And then I think he would encourage his neighbors -- not just gay-rights activists, but straight voters, business and church leaders, parents, Republicans and Democrats - to stand up to bigotry and tell their government, "Take your torches and back off!"
(Thanks to Barry Yeoman who also wrote about Joe Martin's speech in North Carolina's Indyweek.)