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Carrboro seeks equality for LGBT renters

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Renters could not be discriminated against based on their sexuality in Carrboro, but only if the state legislature approves.

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The Carrboro Board of Aldermen recently pressed its legislative delegation for help in strengthening housing protections for gay, lesbian and transgendered residents. The board, with Mayor Mark Chilton, wants to expand the Carrboro Town Charter to prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification. It would add to current protections for renters based on gender, age, religion and race.

Alderwoman Lydia Lavelle said the proposed addition, though largely symbolic, is intended to send a message to state legislators about the importance of equal treatment for LGBT North Carolinians and to highlight Carrboro's inclusive culture.

"I would hope the rest of the state would respect the ability of the people who live in Carrboro and are elected in Carrboro to have the ability to pass such a law as this in Carrboro," she said.

Though any such legislation is likely to meet fierce opposition in the General Assembly, the move is largely uncontroversial in Carrboro. The town has already had a gay mayor—current Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson—and the Board of Aldermen voted years ago to extend benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of town employees.

The challenge for Carrboro lawmakers, then, is a state law that prohibits localities from taking many legal steps—including amending their town charters—without permission from the General Assembly. In this case, legislators and activists say the state's powerful socially conservative lobby may stop Carrboro from crafting parts of its own housing laws.

Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a pro-LGBT rights lobby, said the influence of conservative groups makes Carrboro's request a "long shot." "The biggest challenge is fear [among legislators] of political repercussions, despite evidence that voters are supportive of non-discrimination protections," he said.

Democratic state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a former mayor of Carrboro, attended last week's meeting on the town's legislative agenda, along with fellow Democrats Rep. Verla Insko and House Speaker Joe Hackney. Kinnaird said the amendment will be a hard sell in the General Assembly, even though it only affects Carrboro. "It will be tough, there's no doubt about it."

Kinnaird and Insko supported the School Violence Prevention Act—also known as the anti-bullying bill—which narrowly passed the House last summer. The bill, vociferously opposed by social conservatives, would have standardized public schools' responses to discrimination and bullying, particularly against LGBT students. It died in the Senate.

John Rustin, director of government relations for the conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council, a key opponent of the anti-bullying bill, said he would oppose Carrboro's request because it would set a precedent for other local governments in the state.

"Currently, the terms sexual orientation, gender identification or expression, those terms do not exist anywhere in state law at the present time," Rustin said. Existing anti-discrimination terminology includes only "immutable" characteristics. Rustin said since people can choose their sexual orientation, they shouldn't be afforded the protections given on the basis of race and gender. However, this notion has been largely debunked by reputable scientific research. The American Psychological Association has concluded, "Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation," adding, "Psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed."

Hackney and Insko also co-sponsored the 1999 Orange County Civil Rights Bill, which was nearly identical to the one the Carrboro Board of Aldermen is requesting now, except that it would have applied to the entire county. It failed.

"There's a general rule in the legislature ... that it takes about five to 10 years to get anything tough through," Kinnaird said. "Just because something hasn't made it doesn't mean you don't keep trying."

Carrboro resident Stella Boswell said she supports the measure because of the inherent values it reveals about her community.

"I would agree that it's symbolic," Boswell said. "But there's a lot of power in symbolism. As a citizen, this is important to me because of the message it sends about what our community stands for."

Correction (Jan. 29, 2009): Carrboro extended benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of town employees in 1995.

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