Last edited: December 08, 2004

North Carolina County Undoes Anti-Gay Funding Bans

PlanetOut, February 24, 1999

The Dark Ages of Mecklenberg County, North Carolina have come to an end with the anti-gay Commission majority ousted by the voters, so arts and sexuality counseling funds have been restored.

The "gang of five" majority that had driven an anti-gay conservative social agenda on the Mecklenberg County, North Carolina Commission shrank to a lone voice after the November elections, and by a pair of 8 - 1 votes the Commission resolved to undo the worst of the damage on February 16. Separate resolutions revoked 1997 restrictions on funding to the arts that portrayed "perverted forms of sexuality" that "deviate from the value and societal role of the traditional American family" and restrictions on funding counseling on sexuality for minors without parental consent.

Both hotly-contested restrictions had been put in place out of homophobic concerns. The arts controversy was triggered by the Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning gay/AIDS-themed "Angels in America" (which broke all local box office records during its run). The parental consent debate was set off by fears that counselors might offer youth an accepting view of homosexuality, and before its language was cleaned up for legal purposes the measure specifically banned provision of information about homosexuality, oral sex and "crimes against nature" as defined by the state sodomy law. The low point of those debates came when then-Commissioner, then-Democrat, and "gang of five" swing vote Hoyle Martin said in 1996 that, "If I had my way, we’d shove these people [gays and lesbians] off the face of the earth" -- a remark he apologized for only in June 1998, after failing to collect enough signatures to qualify to run for reelection. In December ! 1997, Martin’s swing vote dumped Democrat Parker Helms from the Commission Chair, specifically because of Helms’ support for an openly gay candidate. Helms was returned to the Chair by the new Commission.

Although the arts in the city of Charlotte and in Mecklenberg County benefited from a 27% upsurge of private contributions as a result of the controversy, the loss of the County funding delayed development plans of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Arts and Sciences Council, an umbrella group with an expert review panel that distributes funds to several dozen assorted organizations. While expecting to have its traditional annual $2.5-million in annual County funds restored when the new budget is approved in June, the Council is already lobbying for hefty increases from both the city and the County to expand into new projects (a half-million from each, representing 23% more from the city and 20% more from the county).

Commissioner Helms, who himself has served on the Arts and Sciences Council, told the gay-friendly "Charlotte Observer" that the repeal of the arts restrictions "simply sent out a message that arts and cultural activities are an important part of this community’s character. It opens up the door to return to that process [distribution of public funds by the Council] that worked so effectively over a long period." Of the repeal of the parental consent requirement he said, "I think it will send a clear message ... that this board says we have confidence in our professionals and that they will do their jobs."

Of the erstwhile conservative "gang of five," only Republican Bill James won reelection, providing the lone "nay" of the two repeal votes. Republican Tom Bush did not seek reelection to the Commission, opting instead to run for Congress. Martin failed to qualify for the ballot as an independent and the other two Republicans were soundly defeated. The two strongest arts funding supporters on the Council, Democrats Helms and Becky Carney, were the top vote-getters.

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