CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A standing-room-only crowd packed into a local Shriners temple over the weekend to hear five candidates for North Carolina Democratic Party chair state their case before a scheduled election next month. It provided an opportunity for two candidates to hug it out after controversy over an anti-transgender insult at another forum last week.

Candidates Patsy Keever and Janice Covington Allison had been the focal points of controversy following a Gaston County candidate forum on Jan. 20. It was there that Keever had referred to Covington, who is a transgender woman, as “a man.” 

At the time, Covington said she was deeply hurt by the comment — similar, activists have pointed out, to prejudiced statements that often paint transgender women as merely “men in dresses.”

“I was shocked when I heard what she said,” Allison said in a written statement to qnotes following the incident last week. “I would compare it to someone using a bigoted slur against me. I am a proud transgender woman and for me to be violated in this way at a public forum by a leader of the party was completely out of line.”

Keever almost immediately apologized, calling Allison the morning after the forum and writing a public apology on Allison’s campaign Facebook page.

“During the candidates’ forum in Gaston County, I referred to you using an incorrect gender pronoun. That was inaccurate and offensive, and not the way that I would conduct myself as chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party,” Keever wrote. “My ambitions for this office are to be an inclusive chair – to serve with an open mind and the ability to admit my faults. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to apologize.”

Though Allison had accepted the apology, controversy was still stirring among some LGBT and party activists, especially after some LGBT Democratic leaders continued to stand by Keever and her candidacy.

‘I make mistakes’

On Saturday, though, Keever and Allison seemed as jovial as ever — and ready to put the insult and its controversy behind them.

Keever alluded to her mistakes in her own opening statement at the Charlotte forum, after stumbling a bit in her own statement.

“I’m looking forward to working with people, with uniting the party. Right now, we’ve gotten to the point where we seem to be picking at each other, and as we all know, we need to be picking at the Democrats,” Keever mistakenly said, adding, “Excuse me — at the Republicans, instead of each other,” with laughter emanating from the audience.

“So, just one more mistake,” Keever immediately added. “I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. We all know that, and my friend Janice knows that I make mistakes more than anybody else.”

Allison followed with her own opening statement calling for party unity and a common goal.

“To tell you the truth, I’m disappointed. The party that I’ve loved since 1972 when I first got involved has come apart,” Allison said. “Humpty Dumpty has got pushed off the wall. Now we have to put him back together. We have so many problems with so many groups in the party. It’s like they are fractured. We have to put them back together. We’ve got to be a family again.”

‘We’re going to hug’

Allison and Keever both issued calls for unity again, in response to a later question about divisions in the party.

“We have the drama, everybody agrees,” Allison said. “If we can just do away with that drama and come together. I feel like there’s so much drama, we’re working against each other.”

If elected chair, Allison said, she’d worked to solve personal problems and divisions.

“We’re going to go to the counties and we’re going to bring the people together that have problems and we’re going to sit in that room until the problem’s solved and we’re going to bring everybody back together,” Allison said.

Keever, immediately following Allison, said she’d look toward building relationships and collaborations.

“I want to meet with leaders of all our caucuses. We have some very important groups within our organization,” Keever said. “Each of these groups … they all have something valuable to offer.”

Keever added, “We’ll build on relationships with all of you. We all need to work together to build those relationships and cut the drama.”

As Keever finished, Allison stood to speak again.

“Excuse me for a second. Can I say something?” Allison asked the moderator. “We’re going to hug.”

Keever stood to join Allison and hugged as some audience members clapped in approval.

Debate rages online

In the wake of last week’s insult, debate raged online among LGBT and Democratic Party activists, attracting attention from across the state and even from outside it.

LGBT party leaders, including officers from local and state LGBT Democrats of North Carolina caucuses, released statements online acknowledging Keever’s mistake and calling for more education.

“As President of the LGBT Democrats it is incumbent upon me to make sure we do a better job representing the transgender community,” state caucus president, Ryan Butler, said in a statement. “No transgender person should ever be discriminated against, intentionally or otherwise. As we move beyond marriage equality, it’s important that we continue to be focused on the broad range of issues that impact the LGBT community. Our caucus needs to do more work to educate the members of our own party on transgender issues. I believe having a transgender candidate for Chair is one great way to help do that and I applaud Janice for running.”

But Butler, along with other officers like Vice President Robert Kellogg, stood by their personal endorsements of Keever.

Over the weekend, Kellogg wrote an open letter to state Democrats, asking them to unite and “seek a reasoned and measured response to not only ensure this does not happen again, but to strengthen the ties that bind us as Democrats.”

Not everyone agreed with the way LGBT caucus leaders responded.

“I do not understand why this organization acknowledges an apology after one candidate’s mistake while we have not acknowledged that a Transgender candidate from our auxiliary is running for office until after a gaffe occurs. I am uncomfortable with the situation,” Cameron Joyce, president of the Mecklenburg LGBT Democratic caucus, wrote in response to Butler’s post. “We could easily have acknowledged the existence of a historic candidacy without endorsing the candidate. We have in this case been forced to be reactionary to a situation where it was not necessary.”

Keever, too, was caught up in the online fray, with a Charlotte advocate calling on her to do more than simply apologize.

“Your comment was childish, moronic and hurtful — especially from a Democrat candidate,” said Shane Windmeyer. “Trans lives matter, trans youth are killing themselves — you need to do more than apologize.”

Keever replied, “Trans lives absolutely do matter. Equality matters. I want to learn and anything you can share with me that can help me learn about the trans community and how to better respect the trans community please send it to me. I feel awful about how I made Janice, and the community, feel.”

Despite the controversy, Allison seemed prepared this weekend to put it all behind her.

“Recently, Patsy Keever apologized to me over the incident at the Gastonia forum,” Allison wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “I accepted her apology and I hold no ill will toward her because I know we all make mistakes. I, like most in the Transgender Community, believe in compassion. There’s no doubt that I’ve had my experiences with hate, bigotry and discrimination. And, I can tell you it’s painful, no matter how thick the skin.”

The election for state Democratic Party chair will be held on Feb. 7 in Pittsboro, N.C., when Allison and Keever will face off with three other candidates — Salisbury businesswoman Constance Johnson, Raleigh party leader Ron Sanyal and former congressional candidate Marshall Adame.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.