The City Council tried to tiptoe away from a hornet's nest. Looks like the members will get stung anyway, no matter which way they turn.
The city's Human Relations Commission had in June voted unanimously to ask the council to alter the list of the kinds of discrimination it is empowered to investigate. The commissioners wanted to add gender, sexual orientation and veteran status.
No one, of course, objected to the addition of veteran status to the list.
But the gender and sexual orientation categories brought a howl from a statewide "pro-family" group and brought out the worst in several council members during a discussion of the request. That included one who wondered if this was akin to discrimination against people who like cats and another who expressed confusion over the "hundreds" of gender categories that people claim. The first was trivializing something really important and the second was displaying an appalling ignorance of the subject.
And none of the council members appears ready to deal with a problem that regularly confronts many of their own constituents. There are likely thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in Fayetteville, just as they live in virtually every community in the country. Council members often remark that they represent all of the people of Fayetteville, but it appears they may not want to make that commitment to the LGBT community.
Why? The issue is filled with conflict and controversy. The conflict can be internal — old prejudices that many of us were exposed to at an early age, coupled with condemnation of non-heterosexual practices by many churches and denominations. And it's external and political. The General Assembly in 2016 plunged into a national controversy when it overreacted to a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance and enacted a law — House Bill 2 — requiring transgender people to use public restrooms that match their gender at birth. The state lost hundreds of millions in revenue as sporting and entertainment events, and hundreds of conventions and business meetings were cancelled. Some companies scrubbed plans to move to North Carolina or expand existing operations.
A year later, lawmakers repealed the measure, but substituted a law that forbade municipalities from amending their anti-discrimination codes at least until late 2020.
And that's what raised the hackles of Raleigh-based N.C. Values Coalition, which circulated a petition asking the council to deny the Human Relations Commission's request. It would violate, the coalition said, the law that replaced HB2. That's not true, because the council wasn't going to amend the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. The Human Relations Commission doesn't have the power to enforce that law anyway. All it can do is investigate complaints and, at most, attempt to reconcile problems through negotiations — if the parties are willing.
But the coalition's pressure spread to some of the council's constituents and the council members backed away from the proposal, pulling it from the agenda for last week's council meeting and not rescheduling it for a later date. But the council had to confront the issue anyway, as a dozen people showed up at the council meeting Monday, nine of them urging the council to adopt the proposal.
The council still hasn't acted, but Mayor Mitch Colvin told an Observer reporter that the council will discuss the issue again but will take its time to consider the facts. "If we don't get it right," he said, "we'll get sued."
We would hope fear of lawsuits or petitions from special-interest groups won't sway the council from doing what's right. Discrimination against residents for their sexual identity or orientation is not a rare thing. Failure to act against it is a tacit endorsement of that discrimination. All Fayetteville residents deserve better protection than that.