For the first time this year, City Council members publicly deliberated on a potential expansion to its nondiscrimination ordinance for Charlotte — nearly eight months since the city gained the authority to more broadly protect its residents.
By next week, Charlotte is slated to become the latest city to expand what’s known as an NDO, after five years without local LGBTQ+ protections.
But it is a self-imposed deadline for the City Council, which tried to wade through nuanced policy language — and the legal ramifications of alternative versions — during Monday’s strategy session. Some council members seemed adamant about sticking with an Aug. 9 vote to adopt an expanded NDO, but others lamented the rushed process to make revisions and incorporate feedback from residents.
“I think it’s pretty awesome that we’ve got something like this that a couple years ago would have been unfathomable,” Council member Larken Egleston said. “I know that every day we wait, these protections are not in place, and I know the community wants them in place yesterday.”
City Council is looking to protect sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and natural hairstyles like afros and dreadlocks through an updated ordinance. But key parts of the ordinance, including which Charlotte employers could be most affected and what enforcement could entail, remain open for debate.
“This is so important and we need to get it right,” Mayor Vi Lyles said.
Charlotte’s pending NDO does not address bathroom use, city attorney Patrick Baker said.
The ordinance, as written now, would take take effect Jan. 1, 2022. Egleston said some of the less complicated components of the NDO should be in place sooner.
Baker urged council members to apply their new definition of a protected class — including protections for a person’s race, color, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, age, family status, sex, veteran status, pregnancy, natural hairstyle or disability — to local employers with 14 or fewer workers.
Federal and state laws already cover employers with 15 or more workers, Baker said.
“We recognize there’s a gap, and my preference legally would be to focus on the gap first — see if we can address that,” Baker said.
The city attorney said there are about 13,300 small businesses with under 15 employees.
If Charlotte’s NDO were broadened to businesses of any size, Baker warned, the city could be overburdened with discrimination complaints from some of the biggest companies here. But through a nonbinding straw vote, Council members Egleston, Matt Newton, Malcolm Graham, Renee Johnson, Julie Eiselt, Victoria Watlington and Tariq Bokhari favored that approach.
Through a unanimous straw vote, council members said the protection for natural hairstyles should also apply to employers of any size. Bokhari, who worked on a separate nondiscrimination ordinance, had prodded his colleagues to not overlook that discrimination gap for large employers.
Council member Ed Driggs said he supports Charlotte’s NDO overall, though he expressed concerns that people covered by the protected class would be considered “untouchable.” Businesses could be “held hostage” by workers who are under-performing, Driggs said.
“We have to be mindful of unintended consequences,” Driggs said. “I want to make sure that other people’s rights are not infringed on.”
Baker is expected to provide council members with more detailed information on the employer size issue Thursday, as well as possible substitute motions the council may want to pursue next Monday.
Other NDO considerations
How Charlotte chooses to enforce the updated ordinance is also murky, as Baker emphasized the city has no experience handling these types of employer discrimination complaints.
Beyond injunctive relief, Newton pressed Baker to levy fines against businesses who discriminate against marginalized groups. Newton called for the council to approve the “most significant deterrent possible” to prevent discrimination.
That drew pushback from Lyles, who suggested the city collect data for 12 to 18 months before attaching a fine to the NDO.
City Council members reviewed just one potential NDO on Monday. Another proposal had been drafted earlier this summer by council member Bokhari and Kyle Luebke, a board member for Mecklenburg County Young Republicans.
In addition to protections for the LGBTQ+ community and natural hair, the Republicans suggested designating political affiliation as a protected class. Employees participating in political demonstrations, for example, couldn’t be fired, according to that proposed ordinance.
Lyles told Bokhari she had not received a copy of his NDO, and Mayor Pro Tem Eiselt said Bokhari didn’t email a copy to council members, either. Bokhari had published the ordinance on his campaign website, though the proposal Council members reviewed Monday was posted on the official meeting agenda.
‘Never felt like home’
Just an hour before the council strategy session, nearly 20 advocates and community members gathered outside the Government Center to discuss the need for expanding Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
Quin Williams recalled what it was like to be a little Black girl and feel self-conscious about her natural hair.
“Today is important to me, because I remember being a little girl sitting in the living room getting my nappy hair combed, crying because it hurt a little,” she said.
Williams, who is the Community Outreach Director for Charlotte Black Pride and identifies as pansexual, said she was concerned as a native Charlottean about the city’s care for its residents.
“This is my home and it has never felt like home,” she said. “I am only asking that the love I have for my home is mirrored.”
Williams emphasized urgency, citing the recent deaths of two Black transgender women. Jaida Peterson and Remy Ferrell were killed within two weeks of each other in April, and the Human Rights Campaign subsequently named Charlotte one of the top deadliest cities in the country for transgender people.
“I’ve never known that violence can be so deeply rooted against Black trans women, but here we are, delayed, taking our time,” Williams said. “It makes no sense. We have to act now.”
Rell Lowery, Charlotte Black Pride’s transgender relations and programming chair, said the community is asking for rights that they should already be receiving.
“We’re begging to be respected,” he said. “Everyone needs to realize that this is not a gay thing. It’s not a Black or white thing. It’s not a partisan thing. This is for Charlotte to be looked upon as human beings, despite our differences.”
History of HB2
The City Council first attempted in 2016 to expand its nondiscrimination ordinance to include LGBTQ+ protections, such as allowing transgender people to use the public bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity.
The General Assembly responded with House Bill 2, which barred cities from passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances and required people to use the public bathroom corresponding with the gender on their birth certificates.
After national outrage, the bill was repealed and replaced with House Bill 142, which allowed the local ordinance prong to expire in December 2020.
Since last December, many North Carolina cities have seized the opportunity to pass local ordinances, including Asheville, Durham and Chapel Hill.
Mecklenburg County commissioners unanimously adopted a protective policy in February, but since there is no enforcement component, it’s largely symbolic.
“Passing this ordinance is the first step to more safety for queer and trans people, especially trans women of color,” Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, said in a statement Monday night. “We strongly urge the (Charlotte) city council to pass this proposal.”