By Susanna Birdsong, ACLU-NC Policy Counsel
North Carolina’s largest city affirmed a basic principle on Monday night: All people deserve to be treated fairly and protected by the law.
In a much-publicized vote, the Charlotte City Council expanded the city’s nondiscrimination law to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination in public accommodations. The vote means that businesses open to the public, public restrooms, taxi services, hotels and other public lodging, must be equally accessible to LGBT individuals, and cannot discriminate against people simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
For decades, local law has prohibited discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Monday’s vote updated that existing non-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Other protected categories added to the ordinance include marital status and family status.
During three hours of emotional testimony from supporters and opponents of the protections, council members heard directly from individuals who would be covered by the expanded ordinance. Lara Nazario, a transgender woman, described the violence and harassment that she and other transgender residents have experienced in their lives, and how she was afraid even to speak that night, as others in the room angrily compared LGBT people to child predators and worse. “I don’t want special treatment,” she explained. “I only want to be treated equally.”
Local protections for Lara and other LGBT individuals are incredibly important because there is no clear, explicit federal law that protects gay and transgender people from discrimination. This is especially true in key areas like access to public accommodations. Federal protections have been introduced in Congress but are stalled in bipartisan gridlock.
With the City Council’s vote, Charlotte has declared that when a business decides to open its doors to the public, it shouldn’t be allowed to refuse service to people because of who they are. Of course, providing a commercial service doesn’t mean a business owner endorses or agrees with everything the customer believes. It simply means they are providing services to the public, they are open to everyone on the same terms, and that Charlotte is open for business to all.
This is important for individuals and for the local economy as well. Major companies such as Apple explicitly told city officials that they will only expand into cities with an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in place. Other major employers, including Siemens, AT&T, Microsoft, and Bank of America, also supported Charlotte’s vote.
Opponents of Charlotte’s efforts often attack the part of the ordinance that allows transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. But that protection in no way changes the rules that govern behavior in the restroom or removes laws against public exposure or assault. It simply offers basic protections for everyone using the restroom, including transmen and transwomen who want only to use a restroom safely and in peace.
Regardless, opponents in the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory have vowed to retaliate against Charlotte for making its city more welcoming, inclusive and safe. Hours before its passage, McCrory said Charlotte’s vote would “most likely cause immediate state legislative intervention.”
Some have tried arguing that North Carolina cities don’t have the authority to pass such ordinances. However, state law gives local governments substantial power to issue ordinances that govern a host of local matters. Charlotte is exercising its legitimate authority to provide all residents and visitors in the Queen City with equal treatment and access to public accommodations. It should be applauded for doing so, especially in the face of bullying threats from state officials who should respect such decisions by local governments.
In the words of Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, council members approved the protections because, “We want to do what’s right for the community; we want to do what helps make people feel safe and included and accepted.” Bravo, Charlotte.