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This Time, LGBT Ordinance Debate Begins With Public Discussion

Later this month the Charlotte City Council is expected to do something it failed to do last year, expand the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to include protections for LGBT individuals. It was a contentious issue then, and remains one today. So, Monday night, the city tried something different. Something that relied on dialogue between those in the audience and dialogue from actors on stage.

When Phil Benham entered the Palmer building last night his broad smile was as obvious as the Bible he carried. "I'm just loving Jesus," he says still grinning, "and right here today where the battle is waxing hot in the city of Charlotte."

Benham was the first to speak before the city council last March, when the body voted down the same non-discrimination expansion in a 6 to 5 vote. Back then, he quoted Leviticus. Last night, he was all about compliments…of a sort. "I think the homosexual community needs to be congratulated for the way that it has forced itself on the Christian community again." Benham’s view represented the minority of the 250 or so people who filled the room.

Che Busiek was hoping to change his mind, "I’m hoping that we’ll get the point across" he says, or at least make some consider the other side of this issue.

Busiek is a preschool teacher by day. By night he is an actor, one of four hired to portray views in this complicated debate. It was an unorthodox move. This was not a meeting of the Charlotte City Council, in fact just four of the 11 council members were there last night. This was a community outreach event.

But it felt like a city council meeting in one key way, it began with remarks by City Attorney Bob Hagemann who explained the measure would add five new characteristics to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. "And those are marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression."

Meaning businesses, taxis, Uber and the like could not refuse to serve a customer based on those characteristics. Marital and familial status, those aren’t at the heart of this debate. Sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are.

It would also allow transgender individuals to use the restroom of their choice.

The four actors presented vignettes, each focused on one aspect of the issue. The source material for each vignette was footage of the comments made by the public the last time the council considered adding these protections. And some of the vignette’s closely mirrored what was said then. Here’s an excerpt of actor Anne Lambert's speech:

"I can imagine if these changes come about taking my daughters to a restaurant and they’re at an age now where they can go to the bathroom independently, and me not feeling like I should let them go alone."

A view expressed by Charlotte mom Angela Keene during last year’s council debate.

"I just wouldn’t feel safe sending them to the bathroom like if I’m at a restaurant or somewhere like that and it would be normal for a man to go in behind them."

Two actors followed Lambert, each portraying a businessman – one in favor of the non-discrimination expansion, one opposed.

Then it was time for Che Busiek. But before his performance, Busiek admitted to going off script as it were. He was there to represent a transgender person’s point of view. Something Busiek knows plenty about. "Yeah, my own experience," Busiek states, "I’m trans-male. I’m more identified as trans neutral which is just on the line. I’m not male and I’m not female. But I identify as he."

Busiek’s vignette ended with this:

"Everybody keeps talking about their kids. I am your kid. And this is really hard. If you were my parents, I’m sure even though deep down you might be horribly upset about who I am or what I am, you might not approve of me you would still want me to be safe. Deep down I think every parent wants that."

Now for this unorthodox presentation to work, for this decision of having actors portray opinions in a room full of people with opinions to not come across as hokey, the audience needed to buy in by having a conversation with those sitting next to them.

Credit Tom Bullock / WFAE
Topic card provided by the meeting organizers

Last night, they did. All of them scooted their chairs into smallish circles, they faced each other and they talked.  

And so it went for 20 minutes.

Then it just ended. There was no further discussion of what was learned or not by any group. No talk of anyone changing their minds. The organizers asked the audience to hand in some topic cards and that was that.

Next Monday, the Charlotte City Council will discuss expanding the non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT individuals at their dinner meeting. The actual vote is expected before the end of the month. The measure is expected to pass.

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