It’s a watershed year fraught with turmoil for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Across the American South, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people are facing wave after wave of legislation that threatens our safety, well-being and very existence.
From “bathroom bills“ to ordinances that permit discrimination, this battle is in many ways a backlash to all of the victories our community has seen recently —including last year’s nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage — and it serves a multitude of political and social purposes for the religious and political right.
In this new series, HuffPost Queer Voices Deputy Editor JamesMichael Nichols, who hails from North Carolina himself, talks to some of the leaders, movers and shakers of the fight for queer and trans liberation in the South about their own personal experiences as activists, the current political and social climate for the LGBT community in these states and the action that we, as a community, can take to help. Check out the previous interview with Pamela Raintree.
When North Carolina legislators passed anti-queer House Bill 2 earlier this year and Governor Pat McCrory signed it less than 24 hours later, the state invalidated the rights of nearly every minority group in North Carolina. While the conversation has largely been reduced to transgender bathroom rights in the mainstream political arena, everyone from seniors to the disabled to gay people lost the power of anti-discrimination ordinances at the state level.
Charlotte Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield has been at the forefront of the battle against House Bill 2, alongside many other queer and trans-identifying activists. As the first openly gay council person to serve in Charlotte, and only the second African American woman, Mayfield has a unique intersection of identities that make this particular battle in the South highly personal for her.
In wake of the Orlando massacre, fighting for the rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers, sisters and siblings in the American South at a legislative level is more important than ever. In this interview with The Huffington Post, Mayfield reflects on the current social and political climate for queer people in the South, what she thinks is the most effective way to fight back against HB2 and the unique way that institutionalized homophobia and and racism affect queer people of color in the South.
The Huffington Post: I would love if you could tell me a bit about your story – when is the first moment that you felt like you became an activist and were compelled to be involved in this line of work?
LaWana Mayfield: I think it really started when I was about 19-years-old when I saw an article in the paper where they needed third shift volunteers to work the suicide hotline in Charlotte. I wasn’t even out then – I’m a late bloomer. 25 was when I started thinking, “Hey I’ve had some great relationships but they haven’t really worked out, what’s the disconnect here?” So when I was 19 I was volunteering and I’ve done a lot of community work on issues of equity and equality across the board – immigration reform, alternatives to incarceration, reducing recidivism and volunteering and working on a number of LBGT-related boards and commissions. I became an activist by accident – I’m an accidental activist.
And you’re in your third term now, correct?
Correct, I was first elected in 2011 and became Charlotte’s first open LGBT elected official.
That’s amazing. What does it mean for you? Does that make what is happening across the South more personal for you?
Definitely, because when I was elected in 2011 at that time I was also only the second African American female to ever be elected to City Council and wearing both hats comes with great responsibility.
To be at the forefront of that conversation and to have the opportunity, I definitely recognize the importance of the community -- the young people and those of us that are not so young -- to know that there are no barriers except the barriers that you create for yourself.
As someone who is at ground zero with everything that is going on with House Bill 2, what do you think is something people might be missing about what is going on in North Carolina? Do you think that people might have the wrong impression about what is happening? Could the media be doing a better or different job about the ongoing story?
I honestly think that the media can do a better job because the conversation was reduced to bathrooms -- not looking at how what Charlotte passed as an fully-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance that wasn’t groundbreaking or earth-shattering. We followed the policies that our friends at other cities had already passed, including one of our biggest competitors, Columbia, South Carolina, of all places. So when you look at the impact of what HB2 did, it took away the rights of everyone if you’re a minority, whether that’s African American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino, female, a senior, if you have a disability – everybody’s rights were taken away when it comes to filing a discrimination case to at least be heard on a state level. Also they took away the ability for us to have a substantial conversation regarding pay equity for municipalities. So it’s interesting that under the guise of protecting women and children -- of which there was no language of enforcement included -- they took away the rights of more than 90 percent of the population.
Under the guise of protecting women and children -- of which there was no language of enforcement included -- they took away the rights of more than 90% of the population.
It’s scary. How do you feel about the controversy over whether musical acts or sports tournaments or businesses should boycott North Carolina or continue to visit? What do you think is the appropriate course of action?
I really don’t agree with the idea of boycotting [these events]. For me, the greater impact is for you to come and support local organizations. I know there’s a lot of great work that happens with national organizations, but what I’m seeing more so is a fundraising opportunity for all the groups like Equality NC and HRC International. We really need to think about the impact on the people’s lives that we’re talking about. So, to me, you come. You create jobs. You create protections for your employees and you get involved and donate to global organizations that are doing the good work. Boycotting is not the answer because you’re basically letting the other side win by giving them the opportunity to say, well, we don’t want those progressive companies here anyways! No – we do want your progressive companies to come, along with your protections of your employees.
So, obviously queer people have experienced prejudice in the South for many, many years. Why do you think legislators have chosen this particular moment and these particular issues in order to spring such a robust and relentless attack against LGBT people in the South?
I think [it’s largely] because of what we’re hearing on the national stage from a presidential candidate/nominee [Trump] who goes to the heart of people’s fear and goes to the core of racism and bigotry. It’s always been there but there’s never been more of a climate for people to share their feelings and say whatever loud thing that they want to say then what we’ve seen in the last year and a half. I mean, let’s have a real conversation -- the moment President Obama was elected into office in 2008 you saw a turn across our nation with how people interacted. You saw it on social media where people you work with, neighbors, people you thought were friends will make comments that they would never have made any other time for the months or years that you’ve known them. And you now see a completely different level of hatred that you just never saw before because it’s as if it’s hunting season and people can do or say whatever they want.
In North Carolina I think the bigger conversation is rural vs. urban. You look at who are the state representatives that wrote and pushed this legislation forward -- they were mostly from rural towns. The City of Charlotte is not competing with the rural towns -- we’re competing with other countries, we’re competing internationally, We’re competing with Texas, Seattle and other places like that.
What challenges for LGBT people in the South do you think are unique or different than the rest of the country?
Well, it’s the Bible belt. But the reality is that you should not be creating legislation based on your religious beliefs because this country was made of immigrants and it was made up of people escaping religious persecution. We seem to have forgotten that because it keeps being spoken and said through sound bites and clips that we’re this Christian nation -- no we’re not! We’re a nation, when you really think about it, of Protestants! But in the Bible Belt of the South, the hypocrisy is definitely there as far as let’s not talk about sex, let’s control women’s ability to control their own bodies. Let’s reduce their options of birth control – we want to protect you women, but let’s make sure men have Viagra on insurance. There’s that mentality of men know what’s best for all people – especially what’s best for women.
Yes, that seems to be the overarching mentality and horrible. How does this fight for equality differ in communities of color, if you think it does, and how does the larger queer community ensure that it’s taking specific issues and needs within those communities to heart.
That’s a very good question that people aren’t having real dialogue about. When you look at last year, there was an article about how the HRC Corporate Equality Index. When you don’t see leadership that is not white male in a lot of these LGBT corporate leadership roles -- even when you talk about this whole debate that’s happening across North Carolina with HB2, who are the faces that you see at the forefront of this conversation? At the same time, you go back a few years when Tavis Smiley did his State of Black America, African American LGBT people were not included in that conversation -- as if we don’t exist! So, we don’t exist in heterosexual black world, but we also don’t exist in the LGBT community until there is a need for a photo op to show the picture of how diverse the group is. Who are the African Americans, who are the Latinos, who are the Asian Pacific Islanders we can find to be in this photo op. And yet when it is time to have a voice in the conversation, you don’t see us! We have to change that dialogue. It’s very difficult as an African American female to see groups talk about “this is a civil rights discussion” when you have nobody that looks like the diversity of the nation or what civil rights look like at the table in a decision-making position. This is an ongoing conversation in communities of color.
So how do we combat that? How do we ensure that these voices are being included in the conversation and elevated?
The first thing is to open the door. Everything is relational. If you think about the job opportunities, the experience you’ve had, more often than not it’s been based on the relationship you had with someone and they gave you the inside information to say hey, this opportunity is coming up, I think you should go for it. Well, if our personal relationships aren't diverse, who do you think is going to be in that room with those conversations? If you don’t make a conscious effort to identify people who are not like you to be a part of the conversation, it doesn’t change. Everybody loves to throw around the word diversity and inclusion – and those are buzz words. But let’s look at equity and equality – that’s a completely different definition. When you look at the impact of equity and see who is at the table, what resources are they being provided in order to be successful?
We don’t exist in heterosexual black world, but we also don’t exist in the LGBT community until there is a need for a photo op to show the picture of how diverse the group is.
Thank you for saying that. What do you think the new generation of LGBT activists can learn from the generations before?
One, I think they need to be cognizant of the fact that there is a past. And this starts just because young people have decided to get involved. So you first need to pay respect to all of those that came before us -- I’m not doing anything new and I’m already old [laughs]. The next generation needs to come on and get started, but you need to pay respect because the only way you can identify what your future is going to look like is to truly know your past and honor that past. So they need to know who Harvey Milk is and what is it that he actually did -- what was that work about? They need to know who we are, especially people of color. We love to do quotes about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but there never would have been any Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. if Bayard Rustin wasn’t at the table! And Dr. King’s leadership threw him under the bus! He would have never had an in with the workers union if it were not for Bayard Rustin. And a lot of people don’t even know who he is! So you need to know your history, and that means we in the LGBT community need to do a better job of questioning, what’s the timeline? Do we know our own history? Who is the one that’s taking these notes and compiling this information to make it easy to find and say, this is the history of the LGBT movement?
Looking towards the future, what does an American South where LGBT people are liberated and free look like to you?
It looks like us showing up 100 percent in our authenticity. That means the LGBT community being on local boards and commissions, having a voice in the room, those business owners being comfortable enough to identify themselves as openly LGBT and it not affect their financial bottom line. It looks like never see a mass shooting of people living their lives as we saw in Orlando at Pulse nightclub, a place of safety where all people come together regardless of how they identify. Teachers are able to be out and be better teachers because they are not having to hide a part of themselves, to be able to openly go shopping for housing opportunities whether it’s to rent or to purchase without the fear of them identifying you as being in a same-sex relationship and denying you access.
It looks to me like people being protected in their jobs and in their communities.
Stay tuned to HuffPost Queer Voices for more in this series talking to some of the leaders, movers and shakers of the fight for queer and trans liberation in the South. Missed the last feature with Pamela Raintree? Head here.