Last edited: January 01, 2005

Gay-Rights Activists Prepared for Session Campaign to Change Laws

Raleigh News & Observer, March 4, 2001

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Gays and lesbians have gained more acceptance in American culture and jurisprudence in recent years, but they still feel like second-class citizens in North Carolina.

Undeterred by recent setbacks at the Legislature, gay-rights supporters and lobbyists are ready to begin another campaign to protect homosexuals in North Carolina.

A bill filed last week would exempt consenting couples from the state’s longstanding sodomy law. Another proposal would add homosexuals to groups protected by the state’s hate crimes statute.

The activists and legislative supporters have been unsuccessful at the General Assembly. Conservative lawmakers and groups have opposed efforts to give what they say is special status to gays.

In a blow to same-sex unions, a bill reinforcing marriage as between a man and a woman passed by wide margins in 1996. A hate crimes bill failed on the House floor in 1999, while a similar crimes-against-nature bill never got out of committee.

The head of the state’s lobby for gay, lesbian and transgender issues still says progress has been made.

"I think 10 years ago, no one would have taken these bills seriously," said Jo Wyrick, executive director of the Equality NC political action committee, which plans a lobbying day Thursday at the General Assembly. "The fact that there are committee hearings is a huge victory."

Wyrick and lawmakers believe they have a good chance with a proposal to extend hate crimes laws that would provide stiffer punishments to people who commit crimes because the victim is gay.

A state House committee approved a bill in 1999 that added gender, sexual orientation, disabilities and age to the current hate crimes law protecting people on the basis of race, religion and national origin. It was defeated 58-48 after full House debate.

Wyrick and Rep. Verla Insko, a prime sponsor of the House legislation two years ago, said they’ll try to get the bill approved in the Senate first this year.

"That would give it some momentum," said Insko, D-Orange. "I think then can we get other people to help us contact lawmakers (for support). It’s another strategy."

Sen. Jeanne Lucas, D-Durham, who plans to file the hate crimes expansion bill in the Senate, is also a co-sponsor of a measure filed Feb. 26 that would exempt consenting adults from the crime-against-nature statute.

The law, which applies to both homosexual and heterosexual couples, defines oral and anal sex as felonies punishable by 10 years in prison.

"I think people’s privacies should be protected," Lucas said. "Your home is your castle. You need to have the privilege to be in your home and do what you want."

While the century-old law is rarely enforced against couples, it is used as an excuse by some people to discriminate, Wyrick said. She said landlords use the law to deny housing to gay couples because they claim doing so would aid and abet a felony.

Sodomy laws at one time were on the books in all 50 states. In recent years, they’ve been repealed or struck down by courts in 32 states.

The proposal would still make a person guilty of a crime against nature if someone is forced to perform the sexual act or pays for it.

"It’s a good bill," said Deborah Ross, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. But she said it’s unlikely the sodomy law will pass in part because lawmakers are uncomfortable talking about sex.

Conservative groups say the sodomy bill would legitimize homosexual behavior as well as unmarried sex, contrary to the morals on which the country was founded.

The proposal also could legalize some forms of bestiality, which is also is forbidden in the current statute, said John Rustin with the North Carolina Family Policy Council. Case law also shows the statute doesn’t apply to married couples, Rustin said.

"There’s nothing wrong with enjoying various forms of pleasures, as long as it falls within the context of marriage," said the Rev. Mark Creech with the Christian Action League of North Carolina.

Rep. Sam Ellis, R-Wake, said he’s wary of any hate crimes bill because it makes one group of victims more important than others by creating additional crimes against defendants.

He points to the case of James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged to his death in Texas. Without a strong hate crimes law in that state, three white supremacists were convicted of murder — two sentenced to death.

"I want to prosecute people who commit the crimes and I want to prosecute people who commit the crimes equally," Ellis said.

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