It's important to recognize -- and encourage -- our allies in the effort to move LGBT rights forward. In the past I've interviewed or profiled politicians in Red states who took public stands in favor of LGBT equality. Virginia Delegate David Englin (D-45), who gave a passionate speech on equality on the floor of the legislature was one, and I covered the stand of Republican Wyoming State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, who showed a spine by voting to defeat a bill that would have allowed Wyoming to ban recognition of legal same-sex unions.
I thought I'd do a profile of an ally running for office in NC; a Purple state that's undergoing a political evolution of sorts. It's one thing to show your spine once elected, it's another to stump across the state as pro-LGBT will raise the eyebrows of political peers (and stodgy consultants and naysayers). Look for future profiles as more and more Red and Purple state allies step up.
This post is a profile of one of the candidates seeking the open lieutenant governor's seat in North Carolina, Dan Besse (Bev Purdue, the current LG, is running for governor). In the Democratic primary, Besse faces Canton Mayor Pat Smathers, Raleigh attorney Hampton Dellinger and state Sen. Walter Dalton. All of the LG candidates have engaged with the gay community in this cycle; Besse has been upfront for some time on the issues. I hope to snare the others to share their views on LGBT equality.
The lieutenant governor is a powerful position in the Tar Heel State; it is the only elected official to have powers in both the legislative and executive branches of state government. The LG is president of the state Senate -- and is chief presiding officer, charged with directing the debate of bills on the Senate floor.
I wrote Dan Besse in February, after I had posted about the lack of discrimination protections and same-sex benefits for state employees.
My wife Kate (we married in Canada, and other than there, it is legally recognized only in NY for the moment) works for the state, and I was recently offered a position with a state entity, a position that was extremely desirable for me professionally. I had to decline consideration because I cannot take a position where my spousal relationship is not recognized in any legal way. I currently work for Duke University, which as a private institution, offers same-sex spousal equivalent benefits and has anti-discrimination policies on the books to protect its LGBT employees. The university extends benefits taken for granted by heterosexual couples with partners who have state jobs such as FMLA, health benefits, etc.
That our General Assembly cannot see the benefit and business sense of getting with the program like most of the thriving private companies in NC is tragically short-sighted. When they cannot even pass a anti-bullying bill that includes language protecting orientation and gender identity shows how far these folks need to come in serving all of the taxpaying citizens of NC.
I also sent this letter along to some of the gubernatorial candidates, but none responded (big surprise).
Dan, however, quickly replied and said that I've love to interview for Blend. Your comments personalize the details of this issue in a way that I think is extremely persuasive. (Not that I needed persuading--but thinking of those who do.)
The full interview/profile is at my pad. An excerpt:
Besse is a strong supporter of LGBT rights and is on the record supporting anti-bullying legislation currently before the NC General Assembly. Unfortunately, the N.C. Senate stripped out sexual orientation and gender identity and returned the bill to the House. The House has not concurred with that change, and the legislation remains alive for the legislative short session in May. Dan:
"As lieutenant governor, I will be an active working member of the state Board of Education. In that position, I will press for implementation of statewide comprehensive anti-bullying rules, specifically protecting our children from abuse based on their sexual orientation or identity. These are among the most frequent problems faced by our students. We cannot allow this violence to continue.
I have heard from too many parents and other family of students who have been mercilessly harassed at school because they were seen as 'different' in their sexual orientation. In Winston-Salem, my local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has been working on this problem for years. It's time to act now statewide to deal with it."
Dan's no transplant to the area; he's a Tar Heel native, born in the small conservative town of Hickory, Besse has lived all over the state -- school at UNC-Chapel Hill (more on that later), Greensboro, New Bern and Lumberton and currently Winston-Salem, where he was first elected as a Democrat to the Winston-Salem City Council in 2001 and re-elected in 2005.
One of the personal stories Dan Besse shared that informed his views on equality is quite eye-opening. Back in the 70s, when it wasn't exactly popular to be an ally of LGBTs in North Carolina, he got a taste of what discrimination was like while attending UNC-CH, which wasn't exactly a hotbed of progressive thought at the time.
When I was an undergraduate at UNC, and this was already the place where Jesse Helms said that NC didn't need a state zoo, it has Chapel Hill. But it was a very different place in in 1975...I had gotten elected to the student legislature, at that time it was called the campus governing council. I was talking about housing issues and academic policy and community activism, and there was an issue that I wasn't really ready for at the time. There was a fairly new organization on the campus called the Carolina Gay Association. And I grew up in a, shall we say, a very conservative small town, Hickory...it was culturally very conservative, a different environment. I got to college and this comes on the radar, it never hit me before.
The debate at the time was whether the CGA would receive student funding. And I naively set up a hearing in my district on this question. And after I had scheduled and announced it, a young woman, a fellow student, pulled me aside and said "what are you doing this for?" It got me to thinking...but I have to go through with the hearing.
The hearing is set up in the basement recreation room of one of the dorms in my district. It's scheduled for 7 o'clock. 7PM comes and goes and about ten after 7, nobody is there except myself and the two people I invited to be on the panel discussion. This is great - nobody is going to bother us. And about that time, we start hearing people stomping...and noise growing, coming down the stairway, and somebody shouting...as they get closer, the words get clearer: "Where are the queers? Where are the queers?!" And so they get to the basement room...it felt like a massive horde of people at the time, but it was probably wasn't more than two or three dozen.
We had to go through with the panel discussion and hearing process. It was kind of edgy there. There were a couple of people who looked like they were going to charge the speakers physically. One guy got up to do it, and the only thing I could think of was to try to talk him down to avoid a brawl...we got out of the hearing without it erupting into a fist fight.
It came to the vote on the council; it was a split vote but we approved the thing (funding the Carolina Gay Organization). After that, when I would walk across parts of campus, people would start to shout out slurs. I started to go into sandwich shops to eat and would take abuse from people on the subject. And that really started me to thinking...I hadn't had the experience of being on the receiving end of that kind of bias before, and I realized that is a mild version of what LGBT people are wrestling with every day and I've got to get on the right side of this. And it made me angry. And the more it happened, the more I thought about it. I had to face a recall election -- people got enough names on a petition to force a revote on my elected position on the campus governing council and it had to go to a runoff.
And it was just because he stood up for something that is right. Besse did manage to hold on to his seat on the governing council, by the way. But his point is that how much the environment in NC has changed since then; it's simply it's not socially acceptable on most college campuses in the state to foment that sort of explicit bias.