When Democratic state lawmakers introduced a package of bills to protect LGBTQ North Carolinians this week, they knew it would be a difficult road to passage.
The current Republican majority hasn’t let similar bills come to a vote when they were introduced in previous years.
A bill that would completely repeal HB2 will be a non-starter with many of the GOP legislators who passed it still in their seats.
A non-discrimination bill that explicitly protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and accommodation died in committee when last introduced.
The new bill outlawing “conversion” therapy for LGBTQ youth is likely to face stiff opposition from conservatives who believe such treatment is part of their religious freedom.
But for several of the lawmakers sponsoring the bills, it is not just important legislation – it’s personal.
“This is so deeply personal,” said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham). “I was a judge for 18 years, listening to cases and affording peoples’ rights when my rights couldn’t be afforded. The hypocrisy of that…and probably one of the happiest days of my life was when the Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, same-sex couples can be married.'”
Morey’s voice was thick with emotion as she emphasized the importance of the LGBTQ community — and legislators who are part of that community — pressing forward even in the face of a GOP majority that dismisses progress for them.
“So we keep talking about this community — well, the community is here too,” Morey said of the legislature. “And it matters to respect everyone and for us to say everyone is equal, everyone should be afforded their rights. And finally, after 60 years, to come out and say ‘Yes I am part of this community.’ Without the shame – because our laws are changing and our attitudes are changing. And love conquers hate and discrimination.”
Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) agreed. Calling herself “a gay member of this big body of government,” Dahle said she remembered LGBTQ constituents being encouraged by her running for office. Those same people – and many more – are now in the fight with her for equality, she said.
“It’s a blessing to have all these people behind me pushing forward and saying that we’re all human beings and we all deserve respect,” Dahle said.
The environment of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the state that continues to generate new bills against same-sex marriage can make LGBTQ North Carolinians feel isolated, Dahle said.
“It’s ostracizing but ostracizing in a very subtle way,” she said. “There are places you don’t want to go. We don’t have that big problem here in Wake County. But I hear reports from people in smaller counties that it just cuts off their social life, it cuts them off from being out in public.”
The Mental Health Protection Act would protect LGBTQ people – especially youth – from being targeted in by harmful programs that have been disavowed by every major medical association, advocates said this week. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all condemn the practice as harmful.
Though some religious organizations support the practice – meant to “cure” people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – critics say it can’t be defended as an expression of religious freedom.
“This is a practice only an adult who has the mental capacity to consent should engage in, if they so choose,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC. “You cannot support electric shock therapy to change someone’s person, you cannot support sleep deprivation, starving children – all of those different things. Child abuse is not a parental right.”
More than 700,000 people have been subjected to the practice, which Johnson said has a strong correlation to suicide. Information on the number of North Carolinians who have undergone it is not readily available, she said, because the individuals and organizations who practice it are often not very transparent about it.
The bill would prohibit licensed therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists or paid pastoral counselors from attempting the therapy on anyone under 18 or on disabled adults. They could risk losing their licenses if they don’t comply. The state would be prohibited from subsidizing the practice, covering it through insurance or giving money to organizations that practice it.
Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. now have laws outlawing the “conversion” therapy. Massachusetts appears close to becoming the sixteenth state. But no state in the Southeast has yet outlawed it.
The bill will obviously face strong opposition from conservative Republicans in the legislature and religious groups who believe in the practice.
“This proposed legislation represents a broken promise that moves us backwards, not forwards,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the Values Coalition, in a prepared statement. “It puts North Carolina right back in the middle of a divisive, destructive debate that is intolerant, hateful and unnecessary.”
Sen. Terry van Duyn, D-Buncombe, said Democratic lawmakers know they face opposition from their Republican colleagues – but these bills can be the beginning of a conversation that may change minds.
“Attitudes change,” van Duyn said. “I think one good example last year was Raise the Age. It took us years to get Raise the Age. Hopefully it won’t take us years to do this. But it just takes time.”
“We’re seeing attitudes change across the state,” she said “Sometimes it takes legislators a little while to catch up with the people they represent.”