Charlotte’s LGBT community has a lot of great things going for it — progress built from oppression and silence turned activism and courage over the past two decades.

Twenty years ago, it was the Rev. Joe Chambers leading the march against us — protesting equality measures and championing the silencing of free speech and the stripping of public funding from the arts. Chambers is old now, less active than he used to be, but new leaders have jumped to the fore and they’re making sure that Charlotte retains its own home-grown sliver of anti-gay extremism and hate. Unlike Chambers, these leaders are louder, more organized, more wealthy and more connected to national anti-gay hate groups.

On Sept. 14, the power of Charlotte’s anti-gay fringe took center stage at First Baptist Church. The church’s pastor, Dr. Mark Harris, introduced his nationally-broadcast event, “Star Spangled Sunday” to an exuberant crowd of supporters as a mere celebration of our beloved national anthem’s bicentennial. What followed, though, was no less a political rally meant to stoke the fires of right-wing hatred.

Sponsoring the event was the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-gay advocacy group so extreme in its hate and propaganda that the Southern Poverty Law Center has named it a hate group. It’s staff and “researchers” regularly repeat the lie that gay men are more likely to be rapists and child molesters, claiming gay men want access to the Boy Scouts and the U.S. military for “predatory purposes.” They’ve even come out in favor of criminalizing gay behavior and one of its staffers once said, in response to efforts to grant equal immigration rights to bi-national, same-sex couples , “I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than import them.”

The council’s president, Tony Perkins, was at the event, standing proudly in front of a huge U.S. flag draped over the organ at the front of the church’s sanctuary. Certainly, it was a far cry from Perkins’ appearance less than two decades ago — standing proudly in front of a Confederate flag — at a Louisiana white supremacist group’s meeting.

Also present at the event were local anti-gay activists David and Jason Benham. The twin brothers’ father is Flip Benham, a street preacher who has regularly protested and harassed LGBT events and women’s health clinics — going so far as to have been found guilty of stalking a local abortion provider in 2011.

The Benham bothers have learned much from their father and another local anti-gay extremist, Dr. Michael Brown. Each of them have come to utilize powerful, militant and religiously-violent rhetoric in their calls for anti-gay “Christian” advocacy.

“…[W]hen Satan steps into the octagon and he’s got rockets in one hand and bombs in another with Hamas, and ISIS, and this agenda to silence our freedoms in America,” David Benham proclaimed at the recent First Baptist event, “it is the Bride of Christ that steps in with our wedding gown on and combat boots on and a sword in our right hand and we will win in Jesus name.”

Militarism and violence was certainly an ongoing theme that night, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee citing scripture to promote violence between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

“I got good news for all the dispirited and disquieted Christians in America who somehow are afraid that the Sons of Ishmael who are challenging us now in the Middle East will overwhelm the Sons of Isaac,” Huckabee said. “Let me assure you, I have read the end of the Book! My dear friend, we win!”

The event’s host, Dr. Harris, has himself become a go-to leader for Charlotte’s and North Carolina’s anti-LGBT extremist movement. Along with anti-gay activist Tami Fitzgerald, Harris led the Vote For Marriage NC referendum committee which successfully passed the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment in 2012. Harris also jumped into politics, taking his campaign for “family values” statewide in a (ultimately unsuccessful) bid to grab the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

Two decades ago, LGBT people in Charlotte were the victims. No amount of protesting or activism could have stopped the anti-gay votes of our local leaders. We turned our “Angels in America” and arts funding loss in 1997 into a catalyst for change. We got more organized. We got smarter. We got more savvy. In the two decades since, we’ve accomplished a great deal. Today, I’d say we stand even with our opponents — no longer victims and ready to challenge their extremist agendas.

To do so, we’ll have to remain vigilant. Events like First Baptist’s “Star Spangled Sunday” show us that anti-LGBT hate isn’t gone in Charlotte. It’s still here, present as it’s always been and, maybe, with a larger reach and broader regional and national power.

It’ll be up to us to make sure that Charlotte continues to grow as a welcoming and inclusive city for all people. We can’t let Harris and his extremist colleagues have the last word. : :

Matt Comer

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