An angry debate over LGBTQ+ rights has erupted in North Carolina’s largest legal organization after the group’s president canceled a drag queen event scheduled by a committee of lesbian and gay attorneys. 

The decision by Clayton Morgan, the president, on May 5, has triggered an angry breach inside the N.C. Bar Association, with some attorneys claiming that the group’s leadership has betrayed its pledge to support the broader LGBTQ+ community out of fear of retaliation from the Republican majority in the N.C. legislature. The recriminations, which were first reported by the Daily Beast, consumed a May 8 remote meeting between Morgan, other bar association leaders, and members of the group’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Committee. 

The committee had planned and scheduled the June 8 drag queen trivia night in Durham as a professional networking event for gay and straight attorneys alike. The event was to have been the committee’s first involving drag performers. 

Representatives of the committee, which was created in 2021 and is comprised of some 75 LGBTQ+ lawyers, judges and other legal professionals, told Morgan during the meeting that he had not only undercut months of their work but had also betrayed the bar association’s commitment to work for “full equality” for the LGBTQ+ community.

“Pay us the respect of speaking plainly,” Charlotte attorney Michael Roessler, who is gay, told Morgan during the hour-long session, according to a recording acquired by The Charlotte Observer. “The political reality is that there is a homophobic, anti-queer super majority in the North Carolina General Assembly, and you’re afraid of them. That is the bottom line. … Cut the bull****.” 

Morgan, a Raleigh-based associate general counsel for Duke Energy, disagreed, then asked Roessler to refrain from using profanity. “I’ll stop my profanity when you stop yours,” Roessler responded. 

Morgan could not be reached for comment Monday. Bar association Executive Director Jason Hensley did not respond to an Observer request for an interview.

How the NCBA responded

In a statement, the bar association, which has more than 16,000 members statewide, stood by Morgan’s decision.

It said the drag trivia event had been canceled because it would “most likely be interpreted as a political statement on behalf of the NCBA by many within the organization, the profession, and the state.” 

That would impair “the effectiveness of the NCBA with regard to many of its initiatives, including the important discussions and work that need to happen with respect to LGBTQIA+ issues.” 

Together, the bar association and the SOGI committee, “have the ability to make significant strides by bringing people together in a way that promotes and effectuates meaningful change with respect to issues of discrimination and inequality. We remain committed to continuing our support of, and participation in, this important work moving forward,” the statement said. 

Contacted by the Observer on Monday, several SOGI members criticized the response as well as the handling of the issue by Morgan and others. Several have already resigned from the committee and are considering leaving the bar association as well. Roessler says he is one of them.

“We all know the political context. An attack on drag queens is not just an attack on drag queens,” he told the Observer. “It’s the tip of the spear in an attempt to roll back decades of progress for LGBTQ people. And the bar has sent a message that it will stand by while Republicans try to shove us back in the closet.” 

NC lawyers react to decision

Connie Vetter, a longtime LGTBQ attorney in Charlotte, said Morgan acted “unilaterally” to cancel the event after deciding it would be seen as the bar “thumbing its nose” at a recent Republican-backed bill filed April 18 that would make it a felony for drag queens and other exotic dancers to perform in public places before anyone 18 and under. 

The drag queen trivia event had been scheduled months ahead of that, Vetter said. “The first time they were asked to show some backbone, the president of this organization folded,” she said. “If nothing changes, I’m not staying.” 

Morgan told the committee members last week that holding a drag queen event, given the political times, threatened to thrust the bar association into a partisan debate, potentially jeopardize its legislative agenda, and could undermine the group’s standing as a neutral arbiter in the administration of justice, its core responsibility.

He urged the committee to consider a different approach – such as presenting a panel discussion featuring all sides of an issue – “not just advancing your agenda on the world.”

Longtime Charlotte mediator Joey Barnes, who also resigned from SOGI due to the controversy, described the comments from Morgan and other bar association leaders as “condescending,” “homophobic” and “a full retreat from what we’d been promised.” 

“We thought we’d been given a seat at the table. Turns out, it was the children’s table,” said Barnes, who is gay. “If the bar is not going to support us on the issue of a drag queen trivia night, what’s going to happen when larger issues come up?” 

Another group may be stepping in so the drag show can go on. Candelario Saldana, a Charlotte attorney who also is president of the Pauli Murray LGBTQ Bar Association, said he hopes his organization can hold the trivia event at the same place and time. “Now more than ever, our LGBTQ+ community needs space where we can be our whole selves,” he said. “… Our identities should not and will not be erased.”

This article appears courtesy of our media partner The Charlotte Observer.

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