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The power of one and of many working for gay equality

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No question gay folks are under attack following the 2004 elections, as Equality NC co-executive director Ian Palmquist says. So why all the laughter when they meet? The proximate cause, at Equality NC's reception for legislators a week ago, was the guest of honor, the first "out" gay member of the General Assembly, Sen. Julia Boseman of New Hanover County. The right wing is alarmed, and properly so, because as fellow Democratic Sen. Doug Berger of Youngsville was quick to note, her very presence in Raleigh is changing the legislature's culture overnight. Henceforth, Berger said, it's just not going to be as easy to beat up on gays and lesbians when one of them--and an experienced (ex-county commissioner), well-spoken one at that--is in the room.

But it wasn't just "our Julia" that had the crowd smiling, it was also the steady stream of other legislators dropping in, some of whom--as Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, also elected, gay and a lobbyist for the Conservation Council of NC, said when he introduced Boseman--were making their first appearance ever at a gay-rights gathering. You expect to see progressives like state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird of Orange County at events like this. But Sen. John Kerr of Wayne County? The words "Kerr" and "progressive" aren't usually paired in a sentence--without the word "not," anyway.

Seeing Boseman with her partner on the Senate floor that first day in January, when families gathered for the swearings-in, was "truly revolutionary," Nelson said, his voice breaking just a bit. Boseman, too, recalling that day, showed her emotions. "This is--it's just history," she said. "They're seeing us as people and not just a minority."

The Democratic leadership in the Senate's been great to her too, she said. They made her chief sponsor of Senate Bill 2, a family-values bill if there ever was one--it would outlaw the sale of violent or obscene video games to minors. It's given her entree with Republican members who're interested in being co-sponsors, and a chance to say to them--with a huge smile, now--"I bet I'm the last person you thought would be coming up to work with you!"

And what, by the way, is Senate Bill 1? It's the Senate's own rules, and this session they include an increase in the number of members' signatures needed to "discharge" a bill and bring it to the floor over the leadership's objections. Used to be 30 (out of 50). Now, it's 33. Why? The short answer is Senate Bill 8, the proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriages. (They're already banned by law.) Almost every Republican senator is co-sponsoring it, but there are only 21 of them, and the change means they'll need at least a dozen Democrats with them to get a floor vote--which isn't going to happen.

Which was another reason to smile. But what really had Palmquist jazzed, he said, was the fact that legislators he's never talked to before are calling, asking him to stop by and wanting to hear his take, not just on Senate Bill 8 but also about such pro-gay ideas as protecting state and local government employees from discrimination because of their sexual orientation. Government workers in 14 states--covering half the U.S. population--have such protection, according to Palmquist, but North Carolina isn't among them.

The Power of Prayer: When the Raleigh City Council voted to affirm its stance against discrimination based on sexual orientation last year (in connection with the work of its advisory Human Relations Commission), it resulted in the formation of a new anti-gay group, Called2Action, which has vowed to be active in the council and Wake County school board elections this year. The night of the reception, Called2Action chairman Steve Noble e-mailed his members to alert them that Boseman and Equality NC were standing in the way of their amendment. "Please pray," Noble's e-mail said, "that we will be able to effectively counter their plans, and that their hearts might be softened to hearing and understanding the Truth on this subject."

They're not the only ones praying, however.

The ranks of the North Carolina Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality have grown in a year's time to more than 250 pastors and church leaders who believe "[t]he most fundamental human right, after the necessities of food, clothing and shelter, is the right to affection and the supportive love of other human beings." They therefore oppose "the use of sacred texts and religious traditions to deny legal equity to same-gender couples."

The group is sponsoring a day at the General Assembly, March 15, preceded by a breakfast meeting and service at Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh.

Pullen's pastor, the Rev. Jack McKinney, and Raleigh attorney Steve Smith are two of the group's leaders. The two were talking about movements one day, McKinney says, and agreed that to succeed in the South, you've got to have a religious "track" to go along with the political and legal ones. Their efforts soon led them to Chantelle Fisher-Borne, a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher who'd already started the Triangle Freedom to Marry Coalition. They've been working together since.

Sunday night, at a fund-raising dinner at Pullen, members of the Kickin Grass Band supplied the entertainment (Lynda Wittig, Jamie Dawson and Patrick Walsh--killer bluegrass, by the way); Pat Hielscher, outgoing leader of the church's GLBT group, supplied the inspiration by saying thanks. "We are reminded of the power of one and the strength of many," she said. "Some of us have had meaningful church experiences throughout our lives. Some have left the church. Others are finding their way back. But none of us ever dreamed that we might one day have equal rights--that we could be recognized, loved and accepted for who we were by the religious community."

Said Hielscher: "May we continue to find ways to touch the sacred within us. We have done that tonight."

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