Read part one of our two-part series exploring women leaders in Charlotte’s LGBT community. Part one details experiences of the 1970s through the early 1990s.
Awaiting a meeting with Charlotte City Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, local attorney Connie Vetter looks out from the government center’s 15th floor lobby, taking in the panoramic scene of a bustling Uptown centuries in the making. Like all who stand upon the shoulders of those who built Charlotte from its roots in the 18th century, Vetter and Mayfield — today two of the most influential female and LGBT community voices in the city — are shepherding a tradition of strong female leadership decades in the making.
Starting in the 1970s, women and lesbians in Charlotte began organizing, speaking out and advocating for change. Leaders like Concetta Caliendo, Billie (Stickle) Rose, Tonda Taylor and Sue Henry created new spaces for women to grow community and take the reins of power and influence.
Vetter and Mayfield are keeping that work alive today — the next generation of women making their mark and leading the community into the future.
‘It was time’
Vetter moved to Charlotte in the early 1990s. She had just finished law school in Boston and was on her internship here. She says she’d always had the good fortune of a supportive family and never “being in the closet.” And, it didn’t take her long to dip her toes in community work in Charlotte.
For a time, she volunteered with this newspaper — back when print editions were still constructed by hand, by copying and pasting, literally, pieces of paper on paste-up board. She met other community members at First Tuesday, a monthly meeting of community minds. In 1993, she was present as Charlotte geared up to host the 1994 NC Pride march and rally.
And, professionally, her work was community-driven, guided by a desire to see change and offer support.
“I had gone to law school as a part of my activism,” Vetter says. “When I got to Charlotte, I already knew what kind of practice I wanted to have and what I wanted to do.”
Her law practice opened in 1994, focusing on the distinct legal needs of the LGBT community. Since that time, she’s been recognized as a foremost leader in LGBT legal issues and awarded for her service in advancing equality.
Not long after she began her practice, Vetter became a leading figure for change in Mecklenburg County. In 1996, controversy exploded over a staging of the AIDS-era-themed play, “Angels in America.” Anti-LGBT activists, religious leaders and politicians condemned the play for its gay themes and, in particular, a short fully-nude scene. The following year, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners voted 5-4 to strip all public funding from local arts programs.
Vetter says the community — both in Charlotte and elsewhere — had been slowly evolving.
“It was just time,” she says, for the community to take a stand — and it so happened it coincided with the “Angels” controversy.
“I think there was a progression,” Vetter says, tracing the activism and growth that emanated from the 1980s AIDS Crisis. “Out of HIV and Metrolina AIDS Project forming, men and women of the community were taking care of the community. There was a lot of politics and law around all of that. People became activists and then with ‘Angels in America,’ I think even the heterosexual community saw the attacks through what was happening around ‘Angels’ — the protests, the counter protests, what the county commission did in response.”
The Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) formed out of that controversy — hoping to unseat the “Gang of Five” commissioners who’d voted to strip the arts funding. Vetter attended the some of the first planning meetings for the group. She’d go on to serve on the board for a number of years before co-chairing the group with local leader Phil Wells. Under their leadership, the group took larger public stands for inclusion. They pushed for domestic partner benefits for county workers, and Vetter put her legal expertise to work — going toe-to-toe with now-former County Attorney Mac McCarley, who was arguing against the benefits.
‘Where I’m supposed to be’
Vetter and Mayfield first met in 2007. That chance meeting — at a community event at Mayfield’s church, Unity Fellowship — would blossom into a lasting friendship.
Mayfield had moved to Charlotte when she was just 18. She wasn’t out. She says she hadn’t even yet realized her identity.
“I didn’t come out until I was 27,” Mayfield says. “I wasn’t in denial. It was just never even a thought until I met the person who, like in the movies, made my heart skip a beat.”
Though not yet identifying as a member of the LGBT community, Mayfield got involved. She saw an advertisement for volunteers needed at the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard. A third shift slot. There, Mayfield counseled callers, many of whom were contemplating suicide.
“I would sit there and help, just talk to people, encourage them to make it through because it will get better,” she says.
It would be years more before Mayfield stepped further into LGBT community leadership — working meanwhile to address issues of racial equality and advocating for the African-American community.
Though her later coming out was delayed, Mayfield doesn’t regret it. Life as it unfolded for her happened for a reason.
“I am where I am right where I’m supposed to be. No more. No less,” she says. “If it had happened any sooner, it wouldn’t have ended up this way.”
Finally, in 2005, Mayfield took the plunge into LGBT leadership and didn’t look back.
“Tonyia Rawls had won a Human Rights Campaign award. The gala was in Greensboro,” Mayfield says. “That was my first introduction to the community as a member of Unity Fellowship Church.”
Mayfield says she was shocked to see so few black community members in attendance.
“I looked around and there were so few African-Americans there,” she recalls. “I could literally count on my hand how many other African-American people I saw outside of those of us who went up in support of now-Bishop Rawls.”
On the way out of the dinner, Mayfield approached a gentlemen to discuss the problem.
“That ended up being Phil Wells,” she says.
Mayfield would go on to become the Charlotte diversity chair of the state’s HRC activities. Later, she’d co-chair a dinner. She continued her service with groups like the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Commission.
In March 2011, Vetter’s and Mayfield’s friendship — and Mayfield’s public service — would take an unexpected turn. Over lunch on that spring day, Vetter asked Mayfield if she might consider running for City Council. Mayfield had never really thought about elected service before, but said yes.
The rest is history. Later that year, Mayfield became the city’s first openly lesbian or gay elected official — more than two decades after Robert Sheets’ first openly gay run and more than a decade after the 1996 mayoral campaign of Sue Henry.
And, when it came time for the swearing in ceremony, the symbolism of Mayfield’s and her partner’s presence was powerful. Behind the Council dais, she and her partner stood side-by-side, her partner holding the Bible upon which Mayfield would take her oath.
It was an historic moment for the community — led by a lesbian woman and her partner, assisted by her lesbian friend and colleague.
But, Mayfield says she and her partner were simply living honestly.
“I did what everybody else did,” she says. : :
— Read more from LaWana Mayfield’s and Connie Vetter’s interview, including their thoughts on the future of the community and their advice for young women, in a special online feature next week.