On the Ground in North Carolina

This week the Democratic Party will make history by becoming the first major American political party to endorse both marriage and employment equality for LGBT people. That this position will be ratified in Charlotte, N.C., highlights a dilemma that is both political and moral in nature.

A growing majority of Americans supports federal equality measures for LGBT people, yet in North Carolina and a majority of states LGBT people remain second-class citizens. Despite this legal reality, LGBT people are fully equal and conduct our private lives accordingly. We express who we truly are, we fall in love, we form families. But such resilience is not an adequate solution to injustice.

Nowhere are these tensions more palpable than in the South. Just to be clear, here's what that means: In North Carolina, you can be fired for being LGBT. You cannot marry or form a civil union with your same-sex partner. You cannot complete a second-parent adoption. A handful of cities across the state have passed employment protections for LGBT municipal employees, but Amendment 1 also passed here by a wide margin in May. Discrimination is firmly codified in our state laws and constitution.

I grew up in North Carolina and am proud to call N.C. home as an adult. I love this state. I was educated in its public schools, I am a diehard Tarheel fan, and most of what I know about faith and family I learned here. I feel completely at home here. And yet the reality of being a second-class citizen in your home state is a daily exercise in persistence, love, and, for me, faith.

North Carolina Is My Home

"Why don't you just move?" I am asked on a regular basis by people from other parts of the country.

The simple answer is that North Carolina is home. But there's more. Some LGBT people, including youth, simply cannot leave, for economic or family reasons.

Evacuating the South is not the right response to the problem of discrimination. The answer, I believe, is to use creative new strategies in the South that call for full equality under federal law, the fastest pathway to equality for LGBT people in all 50 states. Beyond this, the answer is to directly address LGBT rights as a moral issue, in both our private and public lives.

To live in the South as an LGBT person means that you will regularly confront two moral questions: 1) What would you do protect yourself and your family? and 2) How will you approach those who oppose your rights?

The answer I hear most commonly to the first question is pretty much anything. To start with, there are the daily (often silent, often unnoticed) acts of dignity and resilience that are necessary to keep oneself and one's LGBT family safe in the South. Beyond this, LGBT people across our region work hard on efforts to defeat discriminatory ballot measures and, when possible, to advance equality measures or bring legal challenges. What, though, are you to do when traditional means of changing unjust laws aren't working? There's a long tradition of people feeling called, under such circumstances, to use direct action and civil disobedience to resist unjust laws and, in doing so, to exert a different kind of pressure on systems that are immune to traditional approaches. On the ground here in the South, we are finding that more and more people are ready to take this approach.

As to the second question, the answer varies widely and is a highly personal choice. In our work with the Campaign for Southern Equality, we invite people to join us in making an ethical commitment both to resist unjust laws and to treat with empathy and love those who oppose -- or are conflicted about -- our rights. For too long, public conversation about LGBT rights has been dominated by tired, predictable cycles of political and theological brinksmanship, in which each side labels the other as hateful bigots. The best way to break this cycle is to make different ethical choices. Loving those who persecute you is not an easy matter, but this does not exempt us from the charge to do so. Simply put, love is a precondition to justice.

This week, the ratification of the Democratic Party's platform will be a significant moment, politically and historically. Years from now, I imagine that we'll look back at this as one of countless re-calibrations in the turn our country is making toward treating LGBT people as equal citizens.

But this development will not change the legal reality that LGBT people in North Carolina -- and in most states -- are second-class citizens right now. It will take something more to change that reality.

I feel great hope about the years to come, and I also know how much work is ahead of us. We are on an irreversible course toward full legal equality for LGBT people. But such progress is not self-propelling. It requires muscular, savvy political efforts to pass federal equality legislation and successful challenges in the federal courts. But it also requires that we help our nation understand the urgency of our cause and the corrosive effects of discriminatory laws on the lives and spirits of those they target and those charged with enforcing them. That story is one that we are ready to tell here in the South.