CHARLOTTE – The scene looked like any formal event, from prom and beyond, with couples patiently waiting in line, ready to take a turn posing and smiling in front of a backdrop and getting that photo snapped to show they were there. On Saturday, that event was the Human Rights Campaign 2014 North Carolina Gala, and the more than 1,000 in attendance wanted to show they were there, supporting LGBT equality.
The star-studded crowd was a mix of politicians, celebrities — in the case of congressional hopeful Clay Aiken, a bit of both — visitors from across the country, many with North Carolina connections, and citizens of a Southern state that illustrates progress and challenges when it comes to working toward HRC goals.
The theme was how those goals reflect North Carolina and American values, as speaker after speaker emphasized.
Behind the fun was a serious message. How could there not be when, in Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer is deciding whether to sign a bill allowing business owners with strongly held religious beliefs to refuse service to gay citizens and similar bills are being considered in other states, including North Carolina, as Q Notes reported.
In May 2012, North Carolinians voted by a wide margin to amend the state constitution to say that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” The measure was pushed by conservative and primarily Republican legislators, but cities from Charlotte and Raleigh to Durham and Asheville voted “no.”
Lee Knight Caffery said Charlotte is “a very supportive community” for her, her partner, Dana Draa, and their two children, 5-year-old Miller and 3-year-old Margot. But Draa, a Navy veteran of Desert Storm who now works with the VA, and Knight Caffery, an attorney, are also part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit seeking to overturn a state law preventing same-sex and unmarried couples from adopting their partners’ children.
After their photo moment on Saturday, Draa said she has “no legal rights” when it comes to their children because Knight Caffery is the birth mother. “We are very hopeful and optimistic,” said Knight Caffery. The couple has been together for almost nine years. They said they had a commitment ceremony in 2007 and would like to be married in their home state.
The politicians represented were overwhelmingly Democratic, and very aware that getting out their base voters would be crucial in tight 2014 midterm races. U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, whose seat is a top GOP target, said in her remarks to the group that she would “need the activism in this room,” as she pointed out the contrast on equality issues with her opponents. She said wanted to “make clear my support for marriage equality.”
Later in the evening, Hagan, who supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, told She the People that “the government should not stand in the way of equality and justice,” though she also said she “respects differences religious institutions have.” In a fight that already has drawn super PAC millions in dueling ads, Hagan positioned herself as the bipartisan candidate with a focus on jobs and the economy, and the true representative the state.
“People in North Carolina are not going to let this election be sold by people who don’t have North Carolina values,” said Hagan, who was expected to file for reelection Monday in Raleigh. “Outside forces are looking for people whose strings they can pull and they can control, and they know that’s not going to be me.”
Ty Turner, who is running for the state Senate, wanted to talk about “good jobs, good education, good health care.” He said he was encouraged to run for office by his mentor, fellow North Carolina A&T State University alumni Franklin McCain, the Greensboro Four pioneer who died this year. “It’s the same struggle,” said Turner of civil rights and the fight for LGBT equality.
“I know my truth,” said Turner, who is gay and African American. “But I don’t want to be separate; I want to be part of the community.” Turner pointed to the diverse groups represented in North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” marches as signs of progress, as well as events such as the crowning of a 17-year-old transgender student as homecoming king at Charlotte’s East Mecklenburg High School this year.
Award winners on Saturday included the well known, such as Peter Paige, co-creator and executive producer of the ABC Family series “The Fosters,” with its diverse, complex family. The “Queer as Folk” star recalled the whispered slurs he heard walking the halls of an arts high school in Raleigh. The applause was just as enthusiastic, though, for the not-so-famous members of Salisbury Pride, winners of the Trailblazer Award for their activism in a smaller North Carolina city.
The HRC gala attracted a host of corporate sponsors, whose videos played throughout the night highlighted LGBT-supportive policies. The Duke Energy tower in Charlotte was lit up in rainbow colors for the occasion. Organizers say the North Carolina gathering is the second-largest fundraising dinner in the nation, after the national dinner in Washington, for the HRC, the country’s largest LGBT civil rights organization.
HRC president Chad Griffin, who is from Arkansas, told the crowd, “We’ve got to dig deeper, push harder, be bolder.” He said, “No one should have to wait their turn for equality,” whether they live in New York, California or any of the states in between. Former HRC president Joe Solmonese, in the crowd enjoying the evening, said he keeps coming back to North Carolina because “there’s hope and optimism like there is no place in America.” Of the legal setbacks here, he said, “You lose before you win.”
Mitchell Gold, whose Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture manufacturing company is based in Taylorsville and just celebrated its 25th year in North Carolina, would agree with that sentiment. As he pointed out, the state’s Republican senator, Richard Burr, voted with Hagan to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Gold founded Faith in America in 2005 to fight the “religion-based bigotry” that he said particularly harms vulnerable teens, and he edited the 2008 book “Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America.”
Both senators honored his company anniversary in a part of the state where there are, he said, “nice people, some of whom do not know the harm their beliefs cause others.’ But, Gold said he believes, “when you educate people, they rise to the occasion.”