City leaders on HB2: “Wilmington is a welcoming city”

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Wilmington city leaders have spoken up about House Bill 2, the law the North Carolina General Assembly passed quickly last month that prevents transgender people from using the bathroom they feel most comfortable using and limits the power of local governments to do things such pass anti-discriminatory ordinances or enact minimum-wage laws, among other things.

A total crowd of around 50 occupied the four corners of the busy midtown intersection during the two-hour rally.
A crowd of around 50 protested HB 2 last week at the intersection of Oleander Drive and College Road. Photo by Hilary Snow.

Though some citizen groups have already organized protests against the law, the city had not yet made any statements on HB 2 until this week, when the message from the top came loud and clear.

“This legislation does not and will not change the character of our community. Wilmington will always be a community that is open to everyone,” Mayor Bill Saffo said during Tuesday’s city council meeting. “We will continue to treat all our citizens, visitors and businesses with absolute respect.”

The so-called “bathroom bill” was a response to Charlotte City Council’s ordinance that would have allowed trans people to choose which facility they would use. Though proponents of the bill say it is a safety measure to prevent sexual assault, others see it as discrimination and yet another way to make the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual community feel unwelcome.

At Tuesday’s meeting, leaders heard from two citizens who urged them to take a stand against the bill for the members of the community that are most affected by the measure.

“Our children are smart and connected and feel your silence,” said Aleeze Arthur, the mother of a gay child engaged to a trans female and the president of the local Parents, Family and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG) chapter. “They need your support.”

“There’s a stench in the government chamber,” Arthur added. “It’s the stench of government rotting in the abuse of its power, all in the name of religion, and the time to stand up to that government is not when they come for me, but when they come for the first of my neighbors that they perceive to be weak.”

University of North Carolina – Wilmington student Nada Merghani reminded city leaders that part of their duty is to protect their citizens.

“It has become obvious to most citizens now that North Carolina has been on a slow path of regression, long before House Bill 2, but this new law is the most clear and outwardly discriminatory as well as politically, socially and economically disastrous for our state,” Merghani said, noting all the businesses, institutions and industries that have spoken out against the law. “Here in Wilmington, we have a large number of citizens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It’s hard enough being who I am … without the additional stress of knowing discrimination against me or anyone like me is now legal.”

“There’s nothing that makes sense about making life harder for one of the depressed and most ostracized groups throughout American history,” Merghani added, saying that trans people are more likely to be assaulted in public bathrooms than straight people and also have a high rate of attempted suicide in their community. “In the wake of laws like HB 2, I feel obligated to remind my elected officials that they have a moral and social obligation to protect their citizens from hate … I know the right thing to do is to take immediate action to protect innocent people from discrimination – do you?”

In response to Arthur and Merghani’s comments, Mayor Bill Saffo said he and other city council members have received many calls and comments from people on both sides of the issue since the law was passed (though none spoke in support of HB 2 during Tuesday’s public meeting.)

“The state has taken it upon themselves to pass this law,” Saffo said, adding that Gov. Pat McCrory and Speaker of the House Tim Moore have said they would be willing to rethink the law due to the concerns that have arisen. “I will say this as someone who has grown up in Wilmington and seen a great sea change in the community – Wilmington is and will always be a welcoming city.”

“That’s very important to us on council,” Saffo continued. “Our diversity and respect for each other’s differences make us a great city.”

Saffo said he and others on council also had many questions not just about the impact to the community, but also about how it would affect the way the city conducted its business.

Later in the meeting, the topic was brought up again when council discussed a list of issues the city wanted to bring before the state and federal legislatures. Councilman Kevin O’Grady said local governments were not consulted by state officials regarding the law.

“There seems to be a presumption in Raleigh that Raleigh knows best for every city, and that’s just not true,” O’Grady said, saying he intends to bring the issue up with state legislators, especially local ones, during their next meeting. “We need to impress on our delegation that they need to be more sensitive to the differences of the areas.”

“They need to talk to us first, because they’re not talking, and they’re sure not listening,” O’Grady continued. “We really need to press on the legislature that they need to leave authority to local government.”

Councilman Earl Sheridan said the law would hurt the state and local economy, especially the film industry that area leaders are fighting to get back.

“I think it’s hurting our state as far as economic development is concerned. We’ve done a lot of work to resurrect our film industry, and it could be threatening as far as that is concerned,” said Sheridan. “And it’s giving North Carolina a bad reputation across the nation … as a place that accepts discrimination.”

Sheridan and Saffo also said they intended to speak to legislators about how the bill would impact Wilmington’s citizens and businesses, and O’Grady echoed the mayor’s statements about Wilmington’s stance.

“We are a welcoming city,” O’Grady said. “We do not discriminate.”