Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, North Carolina’s fifth openly gay elected official, was a major player in the opposition movement against Amendment One, the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage that passed 60-40 in the May 8 primary. Since its passage, Kleinschmidt has worked to fight against the backlash North Carolina has received from other states and wrote a column entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Boycott North Carolina” for the Huffington Post. WhichWayNC caught up with Kleinschmidt at his law office June 20.
WhichWayNC: What was your reaction when you found out Amendment One passed?
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt: I was watching the returns very closely, and the way they came in was a roller coaster ride. The very earliest numbers were really positive; I guess the earliest reporting precincts were good ones for us that were trying to defeat it. Quickly, it became just a really sad evening. We had known this was going to be a huge challenge – no other state had ever defeated an amendment like this but the expectations were still high that in North Carolina we could do it. It was very disappointing, but there’s some hope that was generated by the work that people did leading up to it.
WWNC: How much of a chance did you think the opposition movement had?
MK: I think we had a good chance. I mean almost every city in North Carolina rejected this if you look at the urban precincts. I think that bodes well for our future. Not just on this issue but also on other social and economic issues, the cities are the leading indicators of where we’re headed. While they may not have been enough at this point in time to determine the outcome of this election, they are pointing us in the direction that the state is going. Nonetheless, it was always going to be an uphill climb. Sometimes it’s hard to score, but the game’s not over yet.
WWNC: If you could say anything to the people that voted for it, what would you say?
MK: I have great hope and confidence in the people of North Carolina, and I know that we’ve come a long way. Somebody even told me that there were some rural precincts out there that were surprisingly against the amendment. I think that’s a function of their communities that comes from familiarity with LGBT people — we’re not boogiemen. The people of North Carolina are on the path to changing their opinion on this issue, and we should feel good about that.
WWNC: And what advice would you give to the people fighting a similar battle against Minnesota’s amendment?
MK: Remember that our strength comes from the power of all the people working together. Our country and the states that make up this country have become great because we recognized the value of people — not of individuals, like kings or tyrants. If we want to maximize the strength of our people and continue to be world leaders, then we need to recognize full equality of everyone. We need to get past the politics of division and recognize wedge issues for what they are, particularly when opponents of equality do it for no reason other than to gain political power on unrelated issues. They think they can put up the gay boogieman so they can get their other policies past. Their real interests aren’t necessarily in marginalizing the LGBT community. It’s just an easy way to divide the electorate.
WWNC: What have you heard about the opposition movement since the passage?
MK: There’s a great diversity of response to the passage of the amendment. Some people continue to feel very disappointed and saddened. There’s anger out there. But I’m trying to focus on creating hope. There was great movement in this state around LGBT issues generally. Unfortunately this issue was around marriage equality and those who voted for the amendment said they weren’t ready to have that conversation yet, but I think we’ve primed the pump to have other conversations. Those of us who fought against the amendment are starting to see greater support for protections around employment, housing and other areas short of marriage equality. This means we need to create an agenda to take advantage of that so even if they’re not ready for marriage equality people are ready to say people shouldn’t be allowed to be fired because they’re gay or lesbian and people shouldn’t be denied housing opportunities just because of their sexual orientation. I think you’ll find consensus around some of those issues, even with people who voted for the amendment.
WWNC: Do you foresee any real changes in the areas of domestic partnerships, including domestic violence and healthcare benefits?
MK: I think there’s reason to be concerned. We have employees, not only here in Orange County but in other jurisdictions around the state, who rely on local governments providing these benefits. Over the course of the year in trying to stop the amendment, we made sure to tell people that there could be this kind of impact. Here in Chapel Hill we’re not going to unilaterally stop providing these benefits. If someone were to sue us, that would create the test. Proponents of the amendment said it shouldn’t affect anything and now we’re saying OK, stick to it. But we don’t know anything right now, and we can’t know until a court tells us what this amendment means because no court has ever interpreted it in North Carolina or elsewhere, so who knows? We’re going to stick to our guns and treat our employees equally until we’re told otherwise.
WWNC: How do you think the passage of this amendment will affect the state’s business community?
MK: For the last 40 years North Carolina has been a leader not just for the south but for the country on civil rights issues. I see a correlation between that and our economic vitality and how we’ve basically led the south and have been a good place for businesses to operate and for people to move to. North Carolina has a great diversity of attractive qualities from the mountains to the coast and because of progressive policies that our state has instituted over the decades, it is safe for people to go and enjoy any part of the state. We are a great tourist destination, a banking center, a film producer and a seed of academia, and I think we were able to be all those things because of our progressive history. Now that we have, for the first time, kind of backslid on our progress, this state has sent a message to the rest of the country and I’ve seen many people questioning whether we’re worthy of the reputation that we’ve earned. Now since the amendment passed I’ve been working hard to remind people that this vote doesn’t define our state. I’ve asked people not to boycott our state, and I’ve reminded people of how wonderful North Carolinians are.
WWNC: How did you feel when President Obama came out in support of gay marriage?
MK: I remember sitting at my desk and hearing that he was giving an interview. People were speculating about what it could be, and even then people were saying he’s going to announce his support for marriage equality. But as obvious as it seemed, I just refused to believe it. I thought, “Well, no sitting president of the United States is actually going to come out in support of marriage equality. It’s just not going to happen.” So I just kind of ignored it, but then I got the news alerts that he said what he said, and I ran back to my computer and watched him say it because I didn’t even believe the news reports. But when I watched him say it, it was a very emotional moment for me. I think it was for every LGBT member of this country. We were really sad about the defeat the day before, but his words, while they didn’t change anything in the moment, they provided hope at a time when we really needed it. It’s a time I will never forget.
WWNC: What was it like attending the president’s pride celebration?
MK: Friday at the White House was an extraordinary day. There was so much hope, optimism and pride. It was the first time I had been invited to the White House for the pride celebration, so I went online to read about what the other ones were like, and in the past these events came with a lot of pushback from the LGBT community. While they were very grateful for the president’s proclamation, it was always like well you told us you’d get don’t ask don’t tell repealed. And then he did it. And then it was eliminating travel restrictions for people with HIV and then he took care of that too. This year I think people were really prepared to come and say, “Mr. president when are you going to evolve and understand that everyone’s relationship should be treated equally?” Well, he took care of that before the event. The president said to us that he’s not going to talk to us about being aspirational anymore, rather we’re going to talk about what we can achieve now.
He’s being true to the principles he said he’d be true to. It may take a while but I think those of us in politics understand that you can’t wave a wand and change things because we have a political system that is designed to be obstructionist so that change can’t occur really quickly. That’s what it means not to have a tyrant, you have to work with people and he’s shown that he can do it.
WWNC: What do you think it will take for this state, and this country to recognize gay marriage?
MK: Polls are telling us that a majority of people who live in this country recognize that all relationships should be treated the same, and they’re beginning to realize that when they’re in a relationship they get all kinds of help from the government to help them continue that relationship and that other people shouldn’t be denied that. Healthy stable relationships are important to our country. I think we’re there in the minds of most Americans. We need more than just a majority to get over some of the obstacles that opponents have put in our way, like marriage amendments. I’m hoping that we’re going to reach it soon, and I’m pretty optimistic that we will. Eight years ago I thought, well it’s going to be a generation or more. I think we’re going to come a lot farther in the next eight years than we have in the last because the movement is accelerating. Maybe it’ll even be during Obama’s second term.