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Local LGBTQ movers and shakers

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Click for larger image • Southerners on New Ground co-founder Mandy Carter and former U.S. Senate candidate Jim Neal on the steps of Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Mandy Carter: In the trenches and loving it

In 1982, when Mandy Carter, longtime social activist and founder of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and the National Black Justice Coalition, initially told friends that she was relocating to Durham, their response was, "You're going to move where?" After working with the War Resisters League in the heart of progressivism, San Francisco, some people thought she was crazy to head to the Southeast for the organization. But Carter was undeterred. "If you want to make change, you have to make it in the South. Look at the Civil Rights movement: This was where it began," she says.

Carter's own journey began in upstate New York, where she was raised in an orphanage. She says she first "knew I was different" when she was about 16, and remembers going to the card catalog at her high school's library to look up the term "homosexuality."

"By the look of that card, I was certainly not the only one that handled it," she says.

She became active in social issues in New York and in San Francisco, where she became involved with the War Resisters League. It was here she met members of the staff who felt comfortable about being openly gay. "I realized that I could bring all of myself to this movement," she says.

Carter understands that as a lesbian woman of color, the groups she identifies with have always had to fight for recognition and equality. "The struggle for women's rights, civil rights and gay rights has been three sequential movements, but it's not only about being female or being black or being gay. It's about equality and justice in terms of race, class, gender and culture," she says.

This philosophy compelled her to co-found SONG in 1993 in Durham, to provide outlets for education and activism within the LGBT community of the South, especially for people of color, immigrants and rural communities. Her latest activist project is working within the black community to increase gay and lesbian acceptance. She is especially concentrating on churches to help spread the message of equality for all, and she highlights well known straight, black allies including Coretta Scott King.

As for the upcoming presidential election, Carter is excited to have a pro-gay candidate on the Democratic ticket. "I haven't felt this excited about an election since Harvey Gantt took on Jesse Helms in 1990," she says. Her voice cracks as she recalls working at the polls during this year's May primary. "A 94-year-old woman came in her wheelchair and proclaimed, 'I'm here to vote for Obama!' and I was just overwhelmed with all that she has seen in her years and how far we've come."

She continues to see promise as newer activists join the struggle for equality. "Youth get it, older people get it, and with the Internet, people are getting it faster," she says. She acknowledges the challenges facing an aging, active LGBT community. "I think about where and how I'm going to live when I'm older. I don't have a lot of social security because of the type of work I've done." But she also notes that AARP has begun to address those issues.

"I'm astounded at how we continue to grow, to see a need for change, to influence others and to believe in the work we do," Carter says. "It is so rewarding, and I love waking up and having one more day to go out, be happy and make a difference." —Jessica Fuller

Jim Neal: Lost an election, gained a voice

The least interesting thing about Jim Neal's run for U.S. Senate, Jim Neal will tell you, is that he is gay.

"The most important thing I've done—and I do—is my involvement not just in the gay community, but in representing the interest of anybody who has been marginalized," says Neal, who lost to fellow Democrat Kay Hagan in the May primary. "I also think about people I met in eastern North Carolina who didn't have any plumbing; they were all black. People in western North Carolina who were living on minimum wage. A lot of people don't get the full benefits of our democracy."

While Chapel Hill is one of the safest places for an openly gay candidate to launch a political career, Neal says he expected to be questioned about his sexuality.

"I was running for U.S. Senate. Everything you have ever done or said was scrutinized," he says. "I'm honest about who I am. It's an interesting identity because people only know that you're gay by declaration. Literally, you have to tell somebody."

There was a time not so long ago when Neal couldn't have run for political office. However, even now, Neal says, "We have identity politics. Regardless of the fact I'm a Democrat, age 51, father of two, I was the gay candidate. Within the context of my race, the issue of my sexual orientation certainly captured a lot of media attention at the beginning, but nobody cared. I didn't think I had any particular courage. It was no big deal."

More difficult was raising his sons, who, while living in California, often were the target of taunts and bullying because of Neal's sexual orientation.

"My kids tolerated unbelievable harassment in middle school. I went ballistic when I found out. The teachers were telling them 'You shouldn't talk about it.' What, are we supposed to hide?

"I was extraordinarily conscious of those four eyeballs looking at everything I did or said. It was incumbent upon me as their father to model to them that I was secure with who I am."

In the November election, Americans have an opportunity to elect more progressive leadership, one that could make further inroads into establishing equal rights and protections for all people. However, Neal says it will take longer than four years to achieve them.

"The federal government should not be in the business of marginalizing anybody on the basis of any identity," he says. "Whether it's serving in military, adopting kids or having marriage equality, these are issues people need to champion." —Lisa Sorg

Sharon Thompson: Small but important victories

A former state legislator and an attorney, Sharon Thompson represents gays and lesbians in parenting and adoption issues, housing and employment discrimination. She also successfully defended the Town of Chapel Hill when it was sued over offering domestic partnership benefits to unmarried and same-sex town employees.

"I think that in North Carolina we tend to hold bad things at bay," she says. "But we have a harder time going forward."

For example, each session, Republican legislators introduce the Defense of Marriage Act, which would authorize holding a public referendum to amend the North Carolina constitution to define marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman. While that anti-LGBT measure has consistently stalled in the legislature, nonetheless, the General Assembly has also failed to pass an anti-bullying bill that would help protect gay and lesbian students in schools.

Thompson relishes the few but important victories, such as second-parent adoption, the first of which was granted in Durham in 2004. Some, but not all, counties allow second-parent adoptions, yet more than 100 children in North Carolina now have two legal mothers or fathers.

"In my generation, having children wasn't something people even considered," says Thompson, 60. "Married people lost custody of their children when they came out. That was the big gay parenting issue 30 years ago. Now it's establishing rights for parenting. That's real progress."

It is unlikely the state will sanction marriage for gays and lesbians. Nonetheless, as other states legally allow gays and lesbians to marry, Thompson says, there are complications for North Carolina as those couples move here.

And many legal arguments affecting domestic partnership rights and benefits—health insurance, end-of-life care, estate planning—extend beyond the LGBT community to unmarried straight couples.

"A lot of what I do is not so much whether you're gay or straight, but whether you choose to be a couple and not be married," she says. "A lot of LGBT work is for people who want to live their life outside the norm; there are no protections for doing that."

Yet, as more children grow up in same-sex families or have friends who do, those arrangements will become more accepted, not only socially but legally. "The 'revolution' will come in the soccer field and in the classroom," Thompson says. "The younger generation is going to make an impact." —Lisa Sorg

Lydia Lavelle: Carrboro alder(wo)man

When Lydia Lavelle ran for Carrboro's Board of Aldermen last fall, her campaign platform included environmentally responsible development, particularly on the north side of town, growth and transit.

And no one seemed to care that she is a lesbian.

"I'm in a Shangri-La in Carrboro," says Lavelle, who teaches sexual identity and the law at N.C. Central University in Durham. "I don't think it hurt me."

Carrboro has long been a leader in LGBT-friendly ordinances, including domestic partnership benefits for town employees. (However, domestic partnership benefits also carry financial penalties: The federal government taxes money you receive for those benefits as additional income. It does not tax similar allowances for spouses.)

Yet occasionally, Lavelle sees blind spots in the county's and town's policies. When Lavelle filed her campaign paperwork, the documents stated any person can be a candidate's treasurer except a spouse. "So my partner could be my treasurer," Lavelle noted. "I made a comment to the [Chapel Hill] Mayor Kevin Foy that the language should include 'partner.'"

The Carrboro town charter includes a housing section prohibiting discrimination based on age, gender and national origin, but not sexual orientation or identity. "The code's been around forever and this has been overlooked." While the Board of Aldermen agreed to amend the code, it requires permission from the legislature. State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird of Orange County is sponsoring a bill to do so.

Lavelle lived in Durham for more than 10 years before moving to Carrboro with her partner. "I always felt empowered and safe in Durham as well," Lavelle says. "Durham's been on the forefront of gay and lesbian rights. I remember when [Mayor] Wib Gulley signed the anti-discrimination proclamation for Gay Pride Week."

That Lavelle's sexual orientation was such a non-issue in the election points to an acceptance, at least in some corners of North Carolina, of gays and lesbians. "When I was running for office, I explained why I'd be a good candidate. I wanted people to take my experience and what I've done with my life into account," she says. "Being a lesbian is part of who I am. And when people hear that gays and lesbians have the same problems they do, people realize we're more same than we are different." —Lisa Sorg

Click for larger image • Activists and advocates: Ron Stephenson, John Paul Womble and Jonathan Merlini in Raleigh - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Ron Stephenson: A sense of urgency

"I believe that we all have a calling, and I know that mine is to give to the community and help others," says Ron Stephenson, co-chair of the Triangle AIDS Walk/Ride and the Crape Myrtle Festival. "As a gay male, HIV/AIDS is something that resonates with me. I have friends who have died from it and friends who are living with it, all who are dear to my heart."

The Crape Myrtle Festival, soon to celebrate its 28th year, is one of the oldest fundraisers for HIV/AIDS in the country. It culminates in a yearly gala in Raleigh on the last Saturday in July. Attendees come out not only to raise money for outreach and education in the community, but also to have an awesome time. Music, dancing, a silent auction and appearances by special guests and performers fill the evening.

The Triangle's AIDS Walk/Ride is held the first Saturday of May and offers fundraisers a chance to raise money and community spirit in downtown Raleigh. Stephenson heads up the ride portion, though he admits that you won't find him on two wheels that day because he's so busy. "But it comes to show you that anyone can get involved; you don't have to complete a certain event to be part of it," he says.

Increased education has eliminated many stereotypes around the disease, and better treatment has extended the lives of millions of people, yet it can be easy to forget that HIV/AIDS is still a devastating illness. "Many young people today can easily not know anyone who has died of AIDS or think, 'If I get it, I'll just take a pill and be OK,'" Stephenson says. "The sense of urgency has dwindled, but not for me." —Jessica Fuller

John Paul Womble: Fun and funds with Drag Bingo

Every month or so at the Armory in downtown Durham, John Paul Womble joins a drag queen named Mary K. Mart to call out numbers in a giant game of bingo. Drag Bingo attracts scores who bring their families to play for the $500 prize and also to see Sierra Nevada, Miss Diagnose, Eunice Ray and Kiki Rodriguez shimmy across the stage and tell bawdy jokes that are just beyond the comprehension of children.

Womble has co-hosted the event since the early days, in 2002, when the Alliance of AIDS Services turned to him to help raise money. Since then, the event has raised nearly a half-million dollars to help serve people in the Triangle living with HIV and AIDS.

Womble became an advocate for people with HIV not long after he was diagnosed with the virus himself, 15 years ago, when he had been working as a small business owner. "My passion and commitment to the cause of eliminating HIV off the face of the earth is a personal battle," he says. "I'd like the disease to stop with me."

When Womble was diagnosed, HIV mostly plagued gay men, and they died in large numbers. Womble helped prepare them for death. When he joined the Alliance eight years ago as director of development and public affairs, testing positive for HIV was no longer a death sentence and the demographics had begun to shift. "Our clients are not affluent gays and lesbians," he says. "Ninety-eight percent of our clients are below the federal poverty level."

"They have no voice," he says. "HIV is not the disease du jour. There are so many diseases that affect our community as a whole. Part of my goal is to keep issues of HIV constantly on people's minds."

The Alliance uses an integrative approach to care, helping clients with housing, medical care, faith ministries and prevention education. Womble works closely with local and state health departments to push the Alliance approach and talks to members of Congress about the changing face of HIV in the South. But locally, he's a celebrity for a different reason.

"I've testified before Congress. I have met with the president. And the one thing people remember me for is Drag Bingo," he says. "The neatest thing about it is the crowd is primarily heterosexual. It's the greatest bridge-building event in the community." —Mosi Secret

Jonathan Merlini: Campus advocate

Last summer, N.C. State University hosted an AIDS education conference, during which a small but fervent group of anti-LGBT student activists verbally attacked the attendees, some of whom were openly gay or lesbian.

While the anti-LGBT students may be in the minority, N.C. State has a well-deserved conservative reputation. It is in this political climate that Jonathan Merlini, president of AEGIS, the campus LGBT group, tries to create a safe environment for gays and lesbians.

"At our events, some people come not to learn, but they're there to voice their opinion," says Merlini, who is from Kernersville, near Greensboro. "Everyone has a right to their opinion, and they get to see our side of the issues as well."

Many of the gays and lesbians who walk through AEGIS' door are often worried about how to come out, Merlini says. "They're afraid they may not be able to. Our campus can be not the most friendly campus. We talk to them, create an open environment as a place on campus that accepts them."

The university administration has supported some of AEGIS' initiatives, including genderless bathrooms that can accommodate the transgender community. The university has committed to add genderless bathrooms to every new building, although retrofitting bathrooms in existing buildings might be too expensive.

In the fall, Merlini will step down as president of AEGIS, which has 30 to 50 members, and work on an intercollegiate group. "So many colleges have ideas; I think there should be an organization that brings them together and especially helps those who aren't in the best place with their own journey." —Lisa Sorg

Michael Tuso: A man of firsts

UNC-Greensboro sophomore Michael Tuso is most likely the youngest student body president in the school's history. He is also the first openly gay student body president in the UNC system—and to him, that's no big deal. "My sexuality is not an issue to my position; I just focus on what I have to do," says Tuso, a Raleigh native and Broughton High School grad. "By the same token, if people are inspired by what I've done, I'm proud."

Tuso takes the reins of a student government that has been in upheaval the past couple of years, including election problems. Many potential candidates were most likely turned off from running for the student body president, but Tuso, a business-turned-political science major, saw it as a challenge to improve the system.

"I'm a firm believer that if something isn't working and that there is a pattern of flaws, to start over from scratch. No matter what political party people are in, they're thirsty for change." Tuso searched outside of student government for cabinet members who had proven campus leadership experience; he plans to continue his "Spirit of Change" campaign that aims to increase the visibility of and spirit in the university.

Tuso has been out to his family and friends since his sophomore year of high school, a move that he describes without fanfare. Yet he does acknowledge that "if I hadn't stepped out of my comfort zone then at 16, I wouldn't be where I am now." As for his campaign, Tuso says that his sexuality was a non-issue, and the only comment he received about it was an e-mail from an administrator inquiring if he had run on "that platform," referring to issues concerning the LGBT community.

"I'm supportive of the political process and in bettering the campus, which obviously includes the LGBT community," Tuso says. "But as a leader I don't want to zone in on one group; I want to help all the students at UNC-Greensboro." —Jessica Fuller

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