The mayor of Charlotte, N.C., is a tall woman with a quick drawl.
Near the end of an hour-long panel at Philadelphia City Hall during which six representatives of Mayors Against Discrimination shared their cities’ LGBT-inclusive policies, she stood and gave her canary yellow jacket a quick tug.
Reaching for the mic, Jennifer Roberts, said, “We need your help.”
She looked at U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, an openly gay congressman from Rhode Island who introduced the Equality Act, and said, “We need to have a strong, national statement that [discrimination] is wrong and against the law. My plea is that we need federal action as soon as possible…Our state has been very clear they won’t budge until forced to do so by the courts or the federal government.”
Roberts had only been in office two months when Charlotte City Council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that included LGBT protections in housing, employment and public accommodations. It was her third month in office when North Carolina rammed through the legislature HB2, which barred local communities from passing nondiscrimination laws.
“They slapped us down,” Roberts said. “In Charlotte, I feel like our hands are shackled.”
She told PGN that estimates suggest the economic impact in the state from loss of business and events like the NBA All-Star Game total about half a billion dollars. But that largely affects the cities of Charlotte, Asheville and Raleigh. She said legislators touted North Carolina’s $500 billion economy and called the loss from HB2 “hardly a blip.”
“It’s the rural legislators that haven’t felt the pressure,” Roberts said. “The legislators actually like it when Charlotte gets hurt because they all feel like their rural areas aren’t getting the jobs anyway. If PayPal didn’t come, then who cares? It’s like, ‘Oh, Charlotte’s not getting any more jobs? Hahaha. You know, we’re showing them.’ It’s almost like they double down when Charlotte suffers.”
During the panel, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said the best tool mayors have at their disposal to promote LGBT equality is not authorizing contracts with entities that come from states with discriminatory laws. San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, who formed Mayors Against Discrimination, agreed and said allies should be encouraged to do the same.
Roberts told PGN it would be helpful for boycotters to look for agricultural products that come from the districts of the legislators who support HB2.
Cicilline told PGN he didn’t think the Equality Act, which would add LGBT nondiscrimination protections to the Civil Rights Act, would pass without a Democratic majority in Congress.
“Once Democrats take control of the House,” he said, “this bill will move immediately. It has been cosponsored by virtually every member of the Democratic Caucus. It has the strong support of our nominee, Hillary Clinton… But we’ve got to elect people who support this legislation.”
Cicilline said polls show the majority of American people support LGBT nondiscrimination, but Republicans don’t feel comfortable supporting it in a polarized political climate. There is only one Republican cosponsor of the Equality Act in Congress and one in the Senate. Both are from Illinois.
“It’s a question of them listening to their constituents and understanding that their constituents do not support discrimination,” Cicilline said. “I’m going to try to get as many Republicans as I can, but they have so far been resistant to any effort to eliminate discrimination against the LGBT community. In fact if you look at the efforts to promote measures that do discriminate, they have been leading those efforts around the country.”
The Equality Act has stalled since last summer. But Cicilline told PGN there are no plans to break the act into three separate bills, as Pennsylvania legislators have done to get some protections passed.
“We made a decision to introduce this as a single piece of legislation, as a comprehensive bill,” Cicilline said. “We really sat around and thought, ‘Well, in what area do we think discrimination is okay?’ We were unwilling to say, ‘You can discriminate in public accommodations,’ or ‘You can discriminate in housing.’
“It quickly became obvious to us that the only way to do it was to draft legislation that prohibited discrimination in all of the important areas of life and that a piece of legislation that only addressed one area would be deficient.”