Wilmington City Council calls for repeal of HB2

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One of the many signs brought into Wilmington City Council Chambers on Tuesday night. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
One of the many signs brought into Wilmington City Council Chambers on Tuesday night. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

A line snaked out the door of Wilmington City Council Chambers, down the stairs and out into the parking lot Tuesday night as citizens against House Bill 2 packed the room to ask the mayor and councilmembers to officially take a stand against the controversial bill.

They were not disappointed.

In a surprise move, following the public comment period when five of the six speakers spoke on the issue, Mayor Bill Saffo asked for the rules to be waived and began reading a resolution in support of local government authority and the repeal of HB2.

“The City of Wilmington is and will always be a welcoming city that takes pride in our diversity and acknowledges that our diversity and respect for each other’s differences makes Wilmington a great city and attractive to residents, businesses and visitors,” the resolution reads in part. “The City of Wilmington has concerns that House Bill 2 does not allow for the full inclusion and dignity of all our residents.”

“Therefore, be it resolved that the City of Wilmington reaffirms its support of diversity and inclusion and the ability of local government officials to protect and advance those ideals and respectfully requests that the North Carolina General Assembly rescind House Bill 2 during the 2016 legislative short session,” it concludes.

The standing-room-only crowd (not everyone was let in due to fire regulations) cheered, jumped to their feet and waved their signs as the council unanimously passed the resolution, 6 – 0. Councilman Neil Anderson was out of town on business and was excused.

T.R. Nunley, a 20-year area resident and employee of the Department of Social Services who was born female but transitioned to male, was the final public speaker and told the most personal story about the difficulty of being trans in today’s society.

“I’ve been extremely lucky in my life to have so much support, but not everybody does,” Nunley said before the room, noting the new law only makes it harder for trans people without anyone to turn to. “Across North Carolina … trans people are afraid.”

Nunley, who has facial hair, said by law he now has to use women’s restrooms, which he said draws lots of strange looks and can be scary. While he’s not necessarily afraid of women in restrooms hurting him, he said husbands or fathers of young girls or other males who see him coming out of restrooms that their female loved ones walked into might not be so understanding.

T.R. Nunley. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
T.R. Nunley. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

“You’re putting my life in danger, and you’re putting trans women’s lives in danger” if you support this law, Nunley said, saying it’s even scarier for male to female transgenders who now have to enter men’s restrooms. He concluded his speech by reading a letter written by his sister to city council, asking them to protect the rights and safety of her “brother and best friend.”

City leaders have publicly stated that Wilmington will remain welcoming and open to all people, but the passage of the resolution, which was not on the city council’s agenda, caught many off guard.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Nunley said. “I didn’t know it was coming, but we heard good things.”

According to city officials, the resolution was finalized earlier Tuesday and came about as a result of conversations the mayor has had with citizens and fellow councilmembers. Before reading the resolution, Saffo said the comments he’s heard from citizens were “concerning.”

“I feel personally that the state legislature should go back into session in this next session to rescind it and to talk about getting more inclusive as to hearing the comments of all North Carolinians,” said Saffo, who along with the other councilmembers met with the local General Assembly delegation early Tuesday morning for breakfast. “This was done in a very quick manner, and I believe there needs to be a lot more thought, a lot more discussion before something of this magnitude is passed.”

At the end of that breakfast meeting, Saffo only briefly mentioned the issue to State Sen. Michael Lee and House Reps. Susi Hamilton, Ted Davis Jr., Rick Catlin and representative-elect Holly Grange.

“I know it’s a sensitive issue, but we ask that you go back and reconsider it,” Saffo said to the delegation, who said nothing but nodded their heads.

Lee, Davis and Catlin, all Republicans, voted in favor of HB2. Hamilton, the lone Democrat, voted against it and has spoken publicly about drafting a bill to repeal it.

While it’s still unclear what the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory will do regarding the bill, Nunley and his fellow supporters (other speakers Tuesday night included Deborah Dicks-Maxwell, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and educator Sandra Leigh, who is running for the New Hanover County School Board) are happy with the city’s stance.

“I’m excited and relieved that our city is one of the regions that really supports all of its community equally,” Nunley said.

Wilmington joins several North Carolina cities such as Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, who have already passed resolutions against HB2.