Twenty years ago, Corretta Scott King spoke to a crowd at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. while opening the city’s Martin Luther King Day observances. Remembering her late husband’s legacy to service, she urged a nation to envision a society filled with compassion.
“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members,” she stated.
Each year, qnotes selects a person or organization that is benefitting the LGBTQ community through service or by breaking down barriers in the region. Many have stepped up this year to support a community wading through a pandemic and one can identify numerous instances where compassion has prevailed over despair. Yet, one person stood out, with years of service to the LGBTQ community and a sense of mentorship that’s now impacting the city’s leaders of tomorrow.
Since coming to Charlotte in 1993, Connie Vetter has served in nearly 20 community organizations in a board or committee member role, not to mention the countless times she has volunteered her skills as one of the city’s most recognizable LGBTQ attorneys.
“Connie is more than just a pillar of our community,” said Chad Turner, the president and CEO of the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “She has been an integral contributor to the progress and growth of our city.”
Vetter grew up in small farm town in Illinois before moving to Ohio in her early teens after her father, a chemical engineer, had been transferred with his company. “We moved from my little 1,200-person town to a suburb of Cincinnati where there were more people in my high school than in the town I grew up in,” says Vetter.
She remembers hating it at the time, but realizes now the abundance of educational opportunities she would have there compared to those in her hometown.
She went on to Ohio State University and came out in her senior year. After graduating with a Bachelors in journalism, Vetter and her girlfriend at the time moved to Boston, Mass. She got a job with the Bay State Banner, an independent newspaper serving the Black community since 1965.
“That was phenomenal — as a 22-year-old, white lesbian Midwesterner to be dropped into Dorchester and Roxbury … and be the only white face … was a wonderful experience,” says Vetter.
She then decided to go to law school with the idea of bringing cases that would change laws, or impact litigation, similar to the work of organizations like the ACLU, Lambda Legal and National Center for Lesbian Rights. She graduated from Northeastern University Law School in 1993, and quickly realized that while the work of those organizations was hugely important, it wasn’t her strong suit. “I don’t like litigation,” she says laughingly. “That was going to be a big problem.”
Her last internship in the program brought her to Charlotte, where she has “proudly” resided ever since. “I fell in love with Charlotte,” remembers Vetter. “It just felt like home.”
Tailoring her practice around her strengths, Vetter focused on estate planning, family and adoption rights and adult guardianship. She focuses on the needs of LGBTQ individuals and couples and is an experienced mediator.
She always has a personalized approach, something she calls a “client-focused practice.” Vetter remembers a moment recently crying over a letter that came from a client. While she may not be changing the laws like she dreamed of as an early law student, Vetter is definitely helping people understand their legal rights and protections. “I get hugs from my clients, and that’s not something a lot of attorneys get,” reflects Vetter.
She is a member of the North Carolina State Bar, Mecklenburg County Bar, National LGBT Bar Association, National LGBT Bar Family Law Institute and is on the board of directors for the Pauli Murray LGBTQ+ Bar Association. In 2016, Mecklenburg County Bar honored Vetter with the Julius Chambers Diversity Champion Award, something she points out was as much for them as it was for her. “That was them (Mecklenburg County Bar) putting their ‘money where their mouth was,’” says Vetter.
She has also presented a number of legal workshops on topics ranging from LGBTQ parenting to HIV/AIDS to transgender equality and LGBTQ diversity. In 2003, she presented on LGBT Civil Rights at the National Conference for Community and Justice and at the Civil Rights Youth Conference.
A Lifetime of Change
Before marriage equality, Vetter successfully helped get domestic partnership benefits for city and county employees, orders that were both rescinded after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Her professional skills proved beneficial and allowed her an inside track to city and county attorneys.
Like many people, Vetter still remembers the moment the Obergefell decision came down, as well as the time waiting when marriage equality passed in N.C. the year before in 2014. “I’ve marched in the streets, marched in Washington, marched in Charlotte,” she says. “In my lifetime, we’ve gone from getting kicked out of the military … heck, we’ve gone from it being listed as a mental illness, to where we are now — to our private intimate relations being unlawful to not anymore.”
She has worked with Time Out Youth Center for years and was a board member of OutCharlotte from 1995-1997. From 1997 to 1998 she worked as a hotline peer counselor for the Charlotte Gay and Lesbian Switchboard. In 2007, she helped envision Charlotte’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center and served on its Board of Trustees through 2009. She served on the Charlotte LGBTQ Steering Committee until earlier this year. From 2015 to 2016, she was a volunteer server at the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte’s First Sunday Dinners and has been part of the Pet Therapy Team at Carolinas Medical Center and Hospitality House. Vetter has also supported philanthropy in Charlotte’s LGBTQ community as a board member of The Wesley Mancini Foundation and on the annual meeting event planning committee for the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund.
“I like sitting on boards of directors,” says Vetter. “I like doing what I can.”
Numerous honors include the Don King Community Service Award in 1999, the Righteous Woman Award in 2004 from New Life MCC, ACLU of North Carolina’s Sharon Thompson Award in 2013 and being named as part of “25 in 25” by the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce in 2017.
Uplifting the Community
Following a public outcry to the financial and organizational mismanagement of MeckPAC earlier this year Vetter was able to bring the community together when few could see beyond the bitter entanglements that were quickly dividing a community.
William Loftin spoke to qnotes about Vetter’s leadership saying “You could not have honored a better human being.” Loftin is the former chair of Charlotte Black Pride and the current transitional chair of MeckPAC. He has seen firsthand the breadth of Vetter’s activism, philanthropy and “love of community.”
“As leaders, we sometimes allow egos and pride to get in the way of us truly reaching our objectives and uplifting the community,” he said. “Connie sees beyond all of that and, because of her humility and willingness to work across every divide, she will continue to leave a mark upon the many lives in the LGBTQIA+ community of Charlotte.”
Vetter and Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls recently resurrected the local Change Agents Lunch (formerly known as the “leader’s lunch”) and she has tried to create opportunities for members of the community to come together and talk.
Vetter served as co-chair of MeckPAC, then called the Mecklenburg Gay & Lesbian Political Action Committee, from 1999 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2006. In 2005, she spoke to qnotes about the organization, “With hate groups ready to limit and take away basic human rights of LGBT citizens, we need to keep working to elect and educate local elected officials.”
She has helped elect LGBTQ-affirmative candidates to the Charlotte mayor’s office, Charlotte City Council, Mecklenburg County Commission, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board and served on the boards of Equality North Carolina and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee. From 2011 to 2013, Vetter was on the Human Rights Campaign Carolinas Gala steering committee and served as Gala co-chair from 2012 to 2013.
When asked what’s next, Vetter says it’s going to require “more of us telling our stories.” Referring to the Bostock v Clayton County Supreme Court decision, she believes that more people will feel comfortable to come out at work. “It’s hard to fear what you know. The more that we’re able to be ourselves, the better,” she says. “But, we also have to not accept things that aren’t acceptable — to understand our power and to speak our truth.” Within the community, she points out that the LGBTQ community needs to deal with its own racism and sexism.
Even though she may be starting to pass the torch in some ways, Vetter is still volunteering, and we likely haven’t seen the last of her leadership. Since the beginning of COVID-19, she’s been helping with Hearts Beat as One working in the food pantry and does fence builds with the United for Animals. The historical and institutional knowledge that Vetter brings to the city’s LGBTQ community can be a valuable asset.
“You will not find many LGBTQ community members that have not engaged, connected with or been affected by her great work,” says Turner. “Her impression and mark in the area of LGBTQ rights, equity and beyond have truly made Charlotte a better place for us all.”
As Loftin said, “We are better because of her.”
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