Virginia same-sex marriage ruling reverberates in North Carolina

When a federal appeals court based in Richmond struck down Virginia’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage on Monday, the effect immediately moved southward.

In North Carolina, also covered by the 4th Circuit, a similar ban — bolstered by a Constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2012 – is also facing challenges in court. As advocates on both sides reacted and politicians involved in tight midterm races took a stand after this latest ruling, the scene unfolded against the backdrop of a museum exhibit that chronicles LGBT history through a Southern lens.

In announcing that his office will cease its “vigorous” defense of the state law, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said, “It’s time to stop making arguments we will lose and instead move forward.” Cooper, a Democrat, had said he could defend the law as groups and same-sex couples fought it, but had previously made his own feelings clear in his personal support of marriage equality and in an appearance at an Equality NC Foundation gala. Cooper is expected to oppose Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016.

“It is outrageous that federal judges put themselves in the place of God by seeking to redefine the very institution that He created,” Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, said in a statement after the court ruling was announced. “Anyone who says that this decision in Virginia somehow strikes down North Carolina’s Marriage Amendment is wrong. North Carolina’s Marriage Amendment still stands, and no judge has found it unconstitutional.”

The candidates in a contentious and crucial U.S. Senate race are on opposite sides on this issue, as well as most others, though both also acknowledge those who disagree.

"Publicly Identified," an exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, traces not often told history of the region at the same time some in the state challenge a same-sex marriage ban. (Photo courtesy of the Levine Museum.)
“Publicly Identified,” an exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, traces not often told history of the region at the same time some in the state challenge a same-sex marriage ban. (Photo courtesy of the Levine Museum.)

Incumbent Democrat, Sen. Kay Hagan, a guest at the Human Rights Campaign 2014 North Carolina Gala earlier this year, has said she supports marriage equality, as well as the rights of religious institutions to have their own beliefs and differences on the issue. Her Republican challenger Thom Tillis, House speaker in the state legislature, strongly supports the same-sex marriage ban and North Carolina’s constitutional amendment. But he also predicted it would probably be repealed within 20 years because of changes in public opinion. Indeed, polls show public approval of same-sex marriage growing in North Carolina, particularly in surveys of younger voters.

In North Carolina, there will probably not be a rush of same-sex marriages as the state and others across the country wait to see whether the Virginia panel’s ruling goes to the full court and perhaps on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But, in the meantime, exhibits at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte offer background that has often been missing in the discussion of LGBT history in the region.

“LGBTQ Perspectives on Equality,” open through Jan. 25 of next year, features four exhibits that examine the issue on national, regional, local and personal levels. One, “Publicly Identified: Coming Out Activist in the Queen City,” was curated by Joshua Burford, UNC Charlotte assistant director for sexual and gender diversity, and includes a timeline of the city’s LGBTQ history.

The museum says the project is the first of its kind in the Charlotte region where, according to figures it cites from the 2010 U.S Census, more than 2,000 same-sex couples call home; more than 18,000 same-sex couples live in North Carolina.

Burford, 39, grew up in Anniston, Ala., and though he says coming out in the ‘90s was “tough,” he also found support, including from his mother, Nina Burford, who attended the exhibit’s crowded opening reception last week. At the event, Joshua Burford told She the People that while he was excited about the museum show, he wasn’t completely satisfied. “This is the start of what I want to see happen in the South,” a focus on its complex history, “not always looking away.” He said it was an interesting perspective, growing up surrounded by history, including the struggles of the civil rights movement. “It’s hard to grow up around that rebellion and not learn something.”

As archivist with UNC Charlotte’s J. Murrey Atkins Special Collections, which will house an LGBTQ archive that includes oral histories, Meredith Evans, associate university librarian for special collections, joined Burford in gathering materials throughout the region for “Publicly Identified”; she said the exhibit was “for the community and by the community.” History cannot hope to be complete, she said, without considering different perspectives.

The timeline covers the protests surrounding a Charlotte production of “Angels in America” in 1996 and the 2011 election of the city’s first openly gay city council member. Considering this week’s court decision, the next chapter of that history is still being written.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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