Last edited: December 08, 2004

Atmosphere Improving for Gays in North Carolina Legislature

Southern Voice, January 11, 2001

By Marsha Barber

ASHEVILLE, N.C.—State Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird hopes that gay-friendly bills that surface when the state legislature’s 2001 session gets underway on Jan. 24 just might stand a fighting chance.

"Insuring gay rights is a long-term project, but opinions have changed radically because of gay activism and the fact that gay people are willing to speak out and let people know what the issues are," Kinnaird said. "A lot more gay people in North Carolina are going public about even being gay, and that’s a very important step."

The Carrboro, N.C. resident tried to introduce a reform of the state’s "crimes against nature" law-which is sometimes used to harass gays-during her first term in 1997, to no avail.

"The gay community asked me if I would introduce this bill and I did," she said. "Of course, nothing happened. It didn’t get assigned to a committee. The leadership hoped it would go away and they made it go away."

As a token nod in response to pressure from gay civil rights activists, legislative leaders allowed a hearing on the bill only after the deadline for being sponsored by a committee and introduced on the floor.

"I intend to introduce that bill again during the upcoming session," said Kinnaird, calling gay civil rights "the last frontier" in the civil rights movement.

"I think there’s a very different public opinion out there now, four years after I first introduced that bill because the gay community has really taken matters into their own hands," she said.

In other words, activism just might equal positive action on the part of North Carolina’s legislative body. Adding fuel to that fire, Shelley Saraniti of Asheville’s Blue Ridge Equality Alliance cautions against complacency, particularly in gay strongholds like Asheville, where it’s easy to get comfortable.

"The gay community tends to be apathetic until something happens to them specifically," Saraniti said. "Asheville’s a wonderful place to live, a very gay-friendly place, so things seem good and people don’t want to rock the boat. People are like, ‘Why do we need this or that legislation?’"

"But I just had a situation with a young man recently who’d never had a problem [because of his sexual orientation] before, but suddenly his employment was in jeopardy. He’d never previously wanted to be involved with BREA or any advocacy group, but his problem made him come forward."

Neither Saraniti nor Jo Wyrick of Equality North Carolina, a gay legislative watchdog group formed in 1991, foresees any potentially anti-gay bills surfacing during this first legislative session of 2001.

"But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen," Wyrick said.

Saraniti and Wyrick are enthusiastic about the proposed revamping of the Matthew Shepard Memorial Act (H.B. 884) to include sexual identification and gender expression. The previous version of the bill, which did not pass when it was initially introduced in 1999, included penalties for hate crimes directed against gays, but did not include references to gender expression.

To help prepare for the upcomnig session, BREA has scheduled a lobby training event with Equality North Carolina next month to offer tips on how to effectively push for gay-friendly legislation.

"The Matthew Shepard Memorial Act was only 10 votes shy of passing in the last legislative session," Saraniti said. "In 2001, we’re determined that it will become law."

Other priorities for gays this legislative session include employment non-discrimination and same-sex marriage, Saraniti said.

And Wyrick is interested in how a new proposed Congressional district-district 14-will shape up.

"We don’t know exactly what area the new district will cover, but in the past, redistricting has led to some very hot, very partisan battles. We’re waiting to see just how District 14 will inform GLBT issues," she said.

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