Damon Seils moved to Carrboro in the late 1990s from Washington D.C., where he completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Prior to moving Seils carefully researched the region to find a southern town that would accept him as an out member of the LGBTQ community.
“One of the few things you could find out about Carrboro on the internet back in the late ‘90s was that Carrboro had a gay mayor and a lesbian police chief,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, that seems like the kind of place I want to live.”
Fast forward two and a half decades, Seils is now Carrboro’s third LGBTQ-identifying mayor in less than 30 years. However, advocates and elected officials like Seils fear new anti-gay and anti-trans legislation will move forward in N.C.’s General Assembly, effectively erasing a lot of the progress made.
Kori Hennessey is the interim executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. They moved to North Carolina in 2011 from northwest Indiana and got involved with the center in the state’s capital just over six years ago.
“Being that we’re in the capital of North Carolina, a lot of people as they’re moving to the area reach out to us when they first move here saying they want to get connected into the community or are looking for an LGBTQ-affirming doctor or something like that,” they said. “We’ve been able to build our programs and services around some of the needs that we’ve been seeing over the last couple of years.”
Hennessey and their team work year-round to provide a safe, affirming space for queer and trans people to gather and feel comfortable. However, recently proposed legislation in the NC General Assembly has forced Hennessey and other LGBTQ advocates back on the front lines rallying against what they believe to be harmful policies.
One policy filed in the state senate – S.B. 636 – would prohibit transgender youth from competing on sports teams correlating with the gender they identify as.
“It’s unfortunate that this is what’s happening. We are falling [in line] with some of the much worse off states right now for the [LGBTQ] community,” Hennessey said. “How do we support the youth and what can we do moving forward, because we know that even if some of these bills don’t completely pass all the way through into law, the ramifications of it are already happening.”
Hennessey said people who have reached out to the center are fearful of the legislation being proposed not just in North Carolina, but throughout the entire United States.
“A lot of people have reached out to us and have been disappointed and upset that things are going the way that they are,” they said. “When you feel like there’s nothing else that possibly can be done, some of these bills are going to become laws, and it’s not even just in North Carolina. Things are not great in this country at all, and so people are feeling kind of hopeless.”
However, Hennessey said these policies are coming from a political minority. A lot of the proposed legislation against LGBTQ people in the state legislature is from Republicans, who currently hold a supermajority in the North Carolina House and Senate.
Republicans may hold most seats in the legislatures, but only 30 percent of registered voters in the state are Republican, according to Carolina Demography. The other 70 percent are either registered as Democrat or Unaffiliated, which is completely opposite of the current legislators in office.
Hennessey said it’s important to remember the loudest anti-LGBTQ voices in North Carolina and in the country don’t represent the majority of voters’ beliefs.
“I really do have to step back and think and realize that the majority of Americans in general, honestly do support the community,” they said. “It’s helpful to remember that people do want the best for others in a lot of ways, but we also know that the negative is going to speak and sound a lot louder than the positive.”
Back in Carrboro, Seils said there has always been a rich history of advocacy for social justice issues, especially in fighting for marriage equality and LGBTQ rights in general.
As mayor, Seils said he and the town council have made it their goal to ensure all residents feel welcome, even if the state legislature continues to propose policies he believes are discriminatory and “unconstitutional on its face.”
“Carrboro is not going to be the kind of community where you see the discriminatory enforcement of laws and things that are clearly violations … of constitutional rights. We’re just not going to do that,” he said. “I think what we need to do at the local level is just make sure that our residents know we’re on the side of those who are essentially being targeted by politicians. Simply put, these bills are legislative bullying. We can just make sure that at the local level, we’re not participating in it.”
Seils said as an openly gay man, he is disappointed in the direction North Carolina is going.
“I’m disappointed and kind of tired – this is not the first legislative session we’ve [had] to fight back attacks on LGBTQ people, including LGBTQ youth,” he said. “I think on a personal level, it feels very stigmatizing. That’s something that all of us, who grew up queer or any other LGBTQ identity, are very familiar with – feeling stigmatized and in many cases bullied, either emotionally or physically.”
Seils said policies such as those being proposed by the General Assembly serve as a reminder for people that the fight didn’t end when the federal government recognized same-sex marriage.
“It’s a good reminder of the reality that progress on these issues isn’t linear,” he said. “It’s a reminder that our progress on the initiatives doesn’t just happen by itself – we have to make it happen.”
At the end of the day, Seils said legislators will have to answer to all of their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them. When that day comes, Seils said he hopes voters will hold them accountable.
“It’s not just disappointing, it’s terrifying that this sort of cynical use of political power for the sake of political power has to come at the expense of everyday people and their lives and livelihoods,” he said. “They have to answer for themselves, but we also have a responsibility not to just sit back. This is a reason for us to keep fighting. We didn’t get where we are today, in Carrboro, or anywhere else in North Carolina without standing up for ourselves and taking care of each other.”