Nothing disappoints like the cowardice of fair-weather friends.
In 2021, the North Carolina Bar Association (NCBA) – the premier professional organization for the state’s lawyers – touted its queer-friendly bona fides when then-President John Heyl announced the formation of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Committee, which pledged to work “to secure full equality for members of the LGBTQ+ community in the NCBA, the legal profession, and society” and to “work to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
At a time when far-right radicals in North Carolina and across the United States are slandering us as groomers – equating queerness with pedophilia – and trying to roll back decades of legal and social progress, the NCBA’s public commitment to equality offered a promise that LGBTQ people would be supported on the fields of political and cultural battle by well-positioned companions of good will and stout heart.
But it was all a lie.
The NCBA, it turns out, is led by equivocators who demonstrate the sort of pseudo-ally-ship that rarely hesitates to abandon the vulnerable so as to mollify the powerful.
In addition to facilitating mentor relationships among LGBTQ members of the bar, sponsoring education seminars, and organizing legal clinics, SOGI provides queer attorneys with opportunities to socialize at networking events.
One such event – a drag trivia night – was to be held on June 8.
Until NCBA President Clayton Morgan unilaterally cancelled it.
In an email sent to SOGI members on May 5 announcing the cancellation, Morgan wrote, “I did not come to this difficult decision lightly or without a lot of thought and consideration.” He offered no written explanation for his decision, but agreed to attend a videoconference on May 8 to “shar[e] with the SOGI Committee the ‘why’ behind the decision.”
The job of the NCBA, Morgan explained during the conference call, is “not to steer into contested politics or offer up political responses. … We therefore try to avoid jumping into legislative or political areas.”
He added that the NCBA should avoid “delving into the politics of matters” or “taking positions.”
Instead of holding a drag event, which he suggested would count as an entry into the sort of “contested politics” the NCBA ought to avoid, Morgan counseled SOGI to “have a forum discussion where you present both sides like we typically like to do.
Both sides, with a neutral moderator.
Get the issues out there that way you’re not perceived as trying to advance just your agenda on the world.” He further suggested we offer “balanced programming, point-counterpoint-type programming.” (Point: “My husband and I should have the right to exist.” Counterpoint: “No, you shouldn’t.”)
How did an absolute ethical imperative – “full equality” – get so quickly recast as “taking positions” in a “both sides” political argument?
Since SOGI’s creation and the announcement of its mission statement, the Republican Party, which seeks to deny queer people our humanity, has gained veto-proof supermajorities in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly. If the NCBA genuinely and fully embraces its queer members now, “it’s likely our Bar Association-backed legislative agenda will be negatively affected,” Morgan explained, “because political viewpoints will be inferred by the General Assembly.” (The “political viewpoints” that might be inferred from a drag trivia night are that drag isn’t dangerous – because it isn’t – and that queer people are people – because we are.)
The bottom line: Morgan cancelled the event so the Republican-controlled legislature won’t think the NCBA is getting too cozy with the queer community. When he granted anti-queer bigots a heckler’s veto, Morgan sacrificed us for the sake of “the larger picture.” We were expendable.
Not that it was easy for Morgan to discard us. “This is painful. This is painful to me,” he said more than once.
Two other presidents of the NCBA – one future, Patti Ramseur and one past, Mark Holt – attended the videoconference to help cast Morgan as a profoundly decent man simply doing his difficult duty. (Simone Weil’s words ring in the ear: “Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.”) President-Elect Patti Ramseur and former president Mark Holt vouched for Morgan – the former saying she hoped we “heard Clayton’s heart on this” and the latter saying he’d “heard [Morgan’s] heart today like you have and I respect that.”
I didn’t hear Morgan’s heart – though I did hear his words. I heard Ramseur and Holt’s, too, as they abandoned the NCBA’s previously promised commitment to “full equality” and instead encouraged queer people to view their claims to citizenship and humanity as a mere “agenda” in a “both sides” political debate. (Two other NCBA leaders attended the videoconference: executive director Jason Hensley and director of equity and inclusion Ebony Freeland Bryant. Both remained silent.)
Morgan’s agonizing offers no solace: Is thoughtful marginalization more or less soul-deadening than thoughtless marginalization? Does the homophobe who earnestly wrings his hands harm us more or less than the homophobe who proudly thumps his chest? Are acts of calculated anti-queerness committed by a highly-placed corporate lawyer more or less egregious than acts of passionate anti-queerness committed by a backwoods evangelical preacher?
Privileged beneficiaries of the status quo tell us all the time who they really are, but we far too often choose not to listen. They make negotiable commitments of convenience, not non-negotiable commitments of conviction: “Do the right thing, always” becomes “Do the right thing, when prudent or advisable or safe.”
Ultimately, such people will be guided not by principle, but by the perspectives of those whom they most respect and fear: the holders of power at any particular point in time – in this case, the Republicans in North Carolina who call us deviants and are working to shove us back into the closet.
In our desire to believe that the ambivalent are actually allies, we forget the lesson Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: Well-meaning moderates who serve as our society’s prominent pillars of respectability are unreliable partners for progress who will “gravely disappoint …” us because they “prefer a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” These men and women of “shallow understanding” and “lukewarm acceptance” betray us because their instinct to placate the powerful is more developed than their instinct to help the vulnerable.
To hedge is their habit.
Even if, upon reflection, the NCBA’s pusillanimity was predictable, it nevertheless counts as an act of disheartening ethical failure given the political environment in which we find ourselves.
Mark Robinson, our current lieutenant governor and likely GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2024, regularly attacks the LGBTQ community. He calls queer people “filth,” labeling us as less than cow excrement and maggots; saying we serve no purpose other than to transform America into a “hell hole” and claiming transgender people are “demonic” and share in “the spirit of the antichrist.” No GOP voices protest Robinson’s homophobia. Indeed, with the Republican Party’s support, he is likely to continue parlaying his hatred into high office.
The party’s state and national platforms describe us as corrosive to the foundations of civil society while generally calling for us to be treated as second-class citizens and specifically seeking to deny us the right to marry.
Meanwhile, legislators in Raleigh and elsewhere are targeting transgender people and drag shows as the tip of a reactionary spear in their broader anti-queer campaign.
These are the people before whom Morgan has chosen to genuflect, and their hostility toward the queer community gives meaning to his actions: He’s become their collaborator, validating their homophobic slurs while adopting their calumnies not only as his own, but as those of the NCBA.
This hasty moral retreat fairly raises an essential question: If the NCBA cannot stand up to these anti-queer bullies over a comical drag show, why should queer lawyers expect our colleagues to do right by us when something really consequential comes along? If our right to honestly, authentically exist can be so easily denied when the stakes are so low, we’ll surely stand no chance of receiving aid and support when the stakes are so much higher.
Queer people have been thrust into battle with adversaries who seek to deny our right to exist. It is a fight for justice and liberty and equality. For decency and dignity. For our full humanity. Neutrality is impossible: You’re a friend or a foe, there is no other option, and it’s time to choose: you either affirmatively support the queer community by actively pushing back against homophobia or – whether by Morgan’s whimpering acquiescence or Robinson’s enthusiastic proclamations – you cast your lot with those who see queer people as a scourge. No other alternative exists, and there is no middle ground on which the calculating can stand. Accommodating, compromising with, or cowering before homophobia is to excuse, enable and empower it. To countenance homophobia is homophobia.
Sadly, the NCBA and its president have made their choice.
We needed leadership, but we got surrender. We needed resolve, but got weakness. We needed courage, but got cowardice. We needed a real commitment to equity, but got a self-serving farce and paper-thin fraud.Michael F. Roessler is a Charlotte attorney and a part of the city’s LGBT Community. To read more of his writings, visit his blog here.