Jamie Kemper knew it’d happen. She just didn’t think it’d happen this quickly.
“We thought it’d be a few years,” Kemper said.
In the short walk from the doors of the Swain County Courthouse to the steps outside it, a couple of people stopped Gilbert Breedlove to shake his hand, ask him if it was true he was resigning his post as magistrate judge and express support. After holding the job for nearly 24 years, this was the last day that Breedlove would spend his working hours in the courthouse.
Amy Leonhart and Louise Jones met 17 years ago at church.
“The best match for me was going to be a church girl,” said Jones, a 60-year-old native of Tennessee. When she met Leonhart, “It’s kind of like everybody else, things just kind of clicked.”
If Amendment One is defeated on May 8, North Carolinians will have made the right decision by refusing to support institutionalized bigotry.
The proposal would add an amendment to our state's foundational legal document that says a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union recognized by law. The wording of the proposal would even strip legal rights from heterosexual partners who live together but aren't married.
My parents never went to college. My father joined the Navy after high school. Mom got married when she was 16 and dropped out. She got her GED when she was in her 40s, after her and my father split up. These traditional, conservative Southerners raised three boys preaching a gospel of hard work and not being uppity.
And that's why they would have voted against this amendment. It's uppity. It would make one person's values superior to another's. In this country, we treat everyone equally no matter what religion he or she may practice. For some, that's no religion. But we are all equal under the laws established by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution.
In almost every case, those arguing for this law cite passages from the Bible and talk about our Judeo-Christian history. That tradition is indeed responsible for much that is good and right in this country, and many good men and women have died protecting ideals that spring from that well.
But it is not the law of the land. Of course, not all who cite the Bible agree on this amendment. A quick perusal of newspapers and websites from around the state will reveal that many ministers who take to the pulpit every Sunday see more harm than good from this amendment.
I would never dare to criticize an individual's religious beliefs. What I have hard time understanding, though, is how some who claim faith as their motivator can justify singling out people because they are different. I can pick up any religious text from any of the major faiths and cite passage after passage that says we should show compassion to everyone.
It wasn't too long ago that women and African-Americans couldn't vote and inter-racial marriages were against the law. That seems ridiculous now, but that was the society we lived in. People were afraid of what would happen if women voted or people "inter-married." Fear. That's basically what this amendment is about.
This early 21st century struggle with gay rights will seem just as quaint and ridiculous in not too many years. Let's let people be themselves and not single out those who may be just a little different. Vote against Amendment One on May 8 and send the right message about North Carolina.
If you believe in polls then North Carolina voters are likely to pass a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriages. But, opponents to such an amendment haven’t given up the fight yet and in fact cite other polls showing exact opposite outcomes.
A decision about whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages will be decided in the May 8 primary.
Fifty-eight percent of likely voters support such an amendment to the state constitution, according to a SurveyUSA poll released late last month. The poll was commissioned by WRAL News and interviewed 1,001 North Carolinians. It found that 36 percent of respondents opposed the law while 6 percent were undecided. Civitas, a conservative North Carolina-based group, says its polls consistently show that more than six out of 10 North Carolina voters say they support a constitutional amendment that establishes marriage between one man and woman as the only recognized domestic legal union in the state.
Those findings run counter, however, to numbers reported in a survey conducted by Elon University earlier this month, which found that 54 percent of North Carolinians opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.
Coming into the homestretch voters can expect more polls attempting to gauge public sentiment, and also to see the issue come sharply into focus: should North Carolina, the lone Southern state without such a constitutional prohibition, join its neighbors in a mandated ban?
Supporters argue that passing an amendment is critical: that by embedding the language into the constitution, North Carolina would be able to successfully block future court decisions that might otherwise allow gays and lesbians to marry. And that’s indeed a needed protection, according to many conservatives who fear extending such legal rights outside the strictures of the traditional man and woman configuration.
“The large majority of North Carolinians believes and stands behind marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” said Bill Brooks of the N.C. Family Policy Council, a group working to pass the constitutional amendment. “The strategy is to put that in the constitution and put it out of reach of the courts — it’s a simple idea to a simple problem.”
But, things aren’t so simple. The amendment would also ban civil unions between same-sex couples and domestic partnerships between couples of the opposite sex in addition to same-sex marriages.
A poll by Public Policy Polling revealed, on the face of it, similar numbers to what the conservative groups are polling: the amendment would pass with 58 percent in favor and 38 percent opposed. But when people realized civil unions would be banned, that support plummeted to 41 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed, with the amendment narrowly being defeated.
“These trends evidence what we see on the ground,” said Liz MacNeil, WNC regional field director for the Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families. “Once North Carolinians understand the harms of Amendment One, including those in Western North Carolina, opposition grows by the day.”
Ralph Slaughter, head of the Jackson County Republican Party, supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions.
“We are the only one of 15 states that does not have this amendment in its state constitution and we need to have it,” Slaughter said.
Missouri in 2004 became the first U.S. state to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. This took place on the heels of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that its constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. Louisiana became the first Southern state to impose a constitutional ban, followed by Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and more. By 2008, all Southern states except North Carolina had such an amendment.
Slaughter said the N.C. Family Policy Council now has leaders in each county, including Jackson, and that the conservative churches are being encouraged to speak out on the issue.
“Though some of the churches have said it is just too political and won’t take signs” to put out supporting the amendment, Slaughter said.
Kirk Callahan, a conservative in Haywood County, said North Carolina voters are facing an array of issues on the May primary, a fact that could prove confusing to those heading to the polls: there are contested races for the 11th Congressional District, the N.C. House 118th District on the GOP side, plus statewide contested primaries for governor and lieutenant governor. Nationally, there is a GOP presidential primary.
“All of this presents a full plate for North Carolina voters,” Callahan wrote in an email. “Much evidence suggests that North Carolina is a center-right state, so I think it is safe to assume that voters are concerned about the subject of Amendment One. However, I would not be surprised if many people do not realize it will be on the primary ballot rather than on the General Election ballot. Furthermore, the fact that gay marriage would not be legal in the state even if the amendment fails may lessen some people’s concern.”
On the campaign trail, the issue hasn’t been front and center.
“Very seldom do I ever hear about it,” said former state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, who is challenging Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, for his old seat representing the 50th District. Davis said the same thing. Snow was a co-sponsor to an identical proposal banning same-sex marriages during his term in office.
Snow, a retired Superior Court judge, said he supports this Republican-generated amendment even thought state law currently bans such marriages anyway.
“There’s a larger statement to be made about it by making it a constitutional amendment,” Snow said, adding that then North Carolina would “speak definitely.”
Davis actually campaigned the first go-around when he defeated Snow on establishing just such an amendment.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, said while passing the amendment is obviously the decision of voters, a federal court decision to the contrary will trump the state constitution or state statute anyway.
“The supporters of this have invited so much attention to the issue I believe they will end up with a federal challenge,” Rapp said. “They may just come out on the short end of the stick because this almost ensures a federal challenge, and (the amendment if passed) could be thrown out.”
Mark Meadows, a Cashiers Republican who’s vying to represent the 11th Congressional District, for his part said he believes voters are truly galvanized by the issue.
“We’ve knocked on a little more than 9,000 doors, and we have talked about the amendment,” Meadows said. “Two-thirds of the people are strongly supporting it.”
Meadows noted that the results could be skewed some in that he’s targeting doors are Republicans, but the rough poll does include unaffiliated voters and some Democrats, he said.
Additionally, Meadows said, rallies on the issue have brought voters out in force. One recently held in Burke County resulted in 160 people showing up to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions.
The wording of the proposed amendment appears simple, but the devil is in the details.
It reads: vote “for” or “against” a “constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state.”
Backers portray the constitutional amendment as a method of blocking any federal court rulings that could pave the way for same-sex marriages in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, opponents say the amendment’s language goes far beyond that and would not only keep the existing ban on gay marriages but also eradicate existing and future legal domestic partnerships between gay and straight couples.
Opponents also say a constitutional amendment isn’t needed if the sole intention is to ban same-sex marriages. That’s because current North Carolina law, enacted in 1996, says that marriage between individuals of the same sex is not valid in North Carolina. This amendment, however, would make that concept part of the North Carolina Constitution.
There is one truly unbiased reviewer of the amendment’s impact, the state’s Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, which approved language for an official explanation of the proposed amendment earlier this year.
Here is the official explanation adopted by the commission: “If this amendment is passed by the voters, then under state law it can only be changed by another vote of the people.
The term “domestic legal union” used in the amendment is not defined in North Carolina law. There is debate among legal experts about how this proposed constitutional amendment may impact North Carolina law as it relates to unmarried couples of same or opposite sex and same sex couples legally married in another state, particularly in regard to employment-related benefits for domestic partners; domestic violence laws; child custody and visitation rights; and end-of-life arrangements. The courts will ultimately make those decisions.
The amendment also says that private parties may still enter into contracts creating rights enforceable against each other. This means that unmarried persons, businesses and other private parties may be able to enter into agreements establishing personal rights, responsibilities, or benefits as to each other. The courts will decide the extent to which such contracts can be enforced.”
Western Carolina University’s faculty senate took on the hot button statewide political issue last week of Amendment One, the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions.
The faculty senate passed a resolution opposing the amendment, which will appear on the state ballot in May.
It wasn’t a unanimous vote: 18 faculty senate members voted for the resolution, four voted against and one abstained. The resolution stated that the faculty senate, which is the top leadership group for WCU faculty, believed Amendment One would constitute targeted discrimination against certain employees and students. Additionally, the resolution stated that the amendment would be antithetical to the university’s mandated policy of nondiscrimination.
North Carolina currently stands as the only southern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Laura Wright, a professor in the English department and director of graduate studies, submitted the resolution. She termed Amendment One “prejudicial legislation,” and said that the decision to seek official Faculty Senate opposition was the outgrowth of a conversation on Facebook with three other faculty members.
Wright noted eight or so Student Government Associations in North Carolina have passed similar resolutions. The issue was to be debated by WCU’s Student Government Association this week.
Karen Starr, a professor in physical therapy, did not necessarily question the resolution’s content but did balk at passing something that purported to speak for all faculty.
“My question is, we are voting on something and we don’t know how they actually feel,” Starr said.
Wright did not object to changing the language specifically to “faculty senate” rather than “faculty.”
There was some discussion about whether to delay a vote, but Christopher Hoyt, a professor of philosophy and religion, said he believed “timing does matter ... if we want to weigh in before the vote and try to contribute to some momentum against this.”
Leigh Odom, a professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders, said she worried that the faculty senate was venturing into a “personal, philosophical and faith-based” matter where it didn’t belong. Odom added that she didn’t believe it was fair to make an “all-inclusive” vote on such a touchy subject.
“Why would this be any different, the majority carries the day. I don’t think it means every single person — there’s certainly room for dissension,” responded Libby McCrae, a professor in the department of history.
Erin McNelis, chair of the group, said in her view debating the resolution was the proper purview of the Faculty Senate. In the past, she said, Faculty Senate had, for instance, passed a resolution supporting the campus newspaper and free speech rights.
“Officially the faculty senate is the voice of the faculty,” McNelis said.
Odom added that the proposed constitutional amendment is “very deep and very personal — you are making a very strong statement.”
“Amendment One is very personal, too,” said Wes Stone, a professor in the department of engineering and technology.
When will we say, “It is enough”?
On Sept. 19, a 14-year-old boy named Jamey Rodemeyer from Buffalo, N.Y., committed suicide after suffering from being bullied by classmates who harassed him with gay slurs both at his school and online. Rodemeyer had recorded his own version of a video modeled on a project called “It Gets Better,” which was established by a writer named Dan Savage to give hope to young gays and lesbians dealing with harassment over their homosexuality.
Rodemeyer had been in therapy, but had also been posting disturbing warnings on his Tumblr account. Just days prior to his suicide, he wrote, “No one in my school cares about preventing suicide, while you’re the ones calling me [gay slur] and tearing me down,” followed the next day by, “I always say I am bullied, but no one listens … What do I have to do so people will listen to me?”
Evidently, the answer to that question was to kill himself, because now, when it is too late, Rodemeyer’s story is finally getting attention, not just locally, but nationally. It hasn’t stopped the bullying, though. At a dance to honor Rodemeyer held on Sept. 22, several students taunted his sister, allegedly saying, “We’re glad he’s dead.” One of the students has been suspended, and the school is now investigating the bullying that Rodemeyer endured before taking his own life.
When will we finally say, “It is enough”?
Less than a week prior to Rodemeyer’s suicide, the North Carolina legislature voted to put a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages on ballot for the primary election in May 2012. It is already illegal in North Carolina for gays and lesbians to get married, but the amendment would make it even more difficult, and would bar the sanction of civil unions as well.
Gaston state Sen. James Forrester (R), who is a doctor and is lead sponsor of the bill, said this at a town hall meeting: “I’ve got a few homosexual patients and I treat them just the same as anybody else. I love them perhaps even more because I know they are going to die at least 20 years earlier and it’s something I have no control over and we need to reach out to them to try to get them to change their lifestyle and back to the normal lifestyle which we can accept.”
Of course, there is not a shred of credible evidence to support Forrester’s reckless claims, nor has he been able to articulate in subsequent interviews why gay marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage while divorce, for instance, is not. You will notice in the referenced quote above that Forrester uses the imperial “we” that excludes gays and lesbians by definition, while also suggesting that sexual orientation and “lifestyle” are interchangeable terms that mean the same thing.
We live in a curious stage in our nation’s history in which gays and lesbians are much more “accepted” than ever before, but this so-called acceptance comes with so many conditions, qualifiers, and exceptions that in the end, “our” cultural and political attitude regarding gays and lesbians is as exquisitely calibrated as a Swiss watch. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military was one example of this — it’s “OK” to be gay or lesbian as long as you do not talk about it or “make a show” of it, which is the way that the vast majority of homosexuals have had to live to get by in this country for countless years. In the nicer parts of town, you may no longer get savagely beaten or verbally attacked for being a gay or lesbian, as long as you don’t do something as egregious as hold hands on the street or in a restaurant with your partner, or life-mate, or whatever other euphemism that “we” find acceptable these days.
There is perhaps no better example of cognitive dissonance on the acceptance of gays and lesbians than the fluctuating positions on gay marriage taken by President Obama over the past 15 years. In 1996, he was for it. During his presidential campaign, he was against it. More recently, his position seems to be that it should be left up to the states. Obama has been quoted as saying that his position is “evolving,” which sounds a lot better than saying, “I am a hypocrite, and my position changes according to the situation and the audience and whether it is an election year.”
So what does all of this have to do with the suicide of a 14-year-old boy? Well, nothing and everything. If the President of the United States cannot make sense of his own position regarding gays and lesbians, if we as a people cannot let go of the conditions, qualifiers, and exceptions that block us from embracing gays and lesbians as being an actual part of “us,” if school officials will not investigate a teenager’s desperate cries for help until he is dead, then shame on us all.
When will we EVER say, “It is enough?”
Next spring, voters in North Carolina will voice their opinions on gay marriage when a constitutional amendment banning the practice will appear on the spring primary ballot.
The question isn’t whether gay marriage should be allowed; it’s already outlawed in the state. But the amendment would entrench the legal ban on same-sex marriage, giving it a much more unassailable legal footing by putting it in the state constitution.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he voted to put the measure to the people as both a campaign promise and a personal commitment to what he called the traditional family, not as an anti-gay tactic.
SEE ALSO: Opinion: It should not be so in America
“That’s not my intention at all. I just think that traditional marriage has been under assault for the last 30 or 40 years in our government, and I think that it’s paramount that we reestablish that in our society,” said Davis. “I think that traditional marriage is the bedrock of our society.”
The amendment got on the ballot after a three-fifths majority vote in the North Carolina House and Senate two weeks ago. In both chambers, all voting Republicans voted yes to a ballot initiative, while all voting Democrats cast no ballots.
North Carolina is the only southern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the outcome of this vote could signal which direction the state is headed in the future, said Chris Cooper, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University.
“What the outcome is going to signify to a lot of people what kind of state North Carolina is,” said Cooper. “North Carolina has always kind-of enjoyed this reputation of being a progressive state in the South. I think that signifies something in the state, we’re kind-of a purple state — we go for Obama, we aren’t for gay marriage but we don’t have a constitutional amendment against it.”
And that progressive, half-and-half reputation is about to be challenged with the spring primary ballot.
It could have bigger political implications, too, for the November election next year. Davis said the reason the initiative is on the primary ballot rather than waiting for the general election in the fall was a concession to Democrats.
Cooper says putting the issue on the primary ballot could give much more right-leaning Republicans the wins in the primary, as voter turnout for such a religiously charged social issue is expected to skew towards a more staunchly conservative demographic.
As for the amendment’s chances at success, Cooper says they look pretty good.
“I think it’s going to have a lot of support,” said Cooper. “Nationally and in North Carolina, younger people are the ones who support gay marriage, and we know that younger people are the ones who don’t often turn out to vote.”
In fact, data collected between 1994 and 2009 by Columbia University graduate students shows that, across the country, approval of same-sex marriage responds inversely to age: the older you are, the less you approve of gay marriage, and vice versa. If a vote on the issue were put to only those Americans 65 and over, no state would allow it. In the most gay-marriage-friendly state, Massachusetts, only 35 percent of seniors endorsed it.
There are 39 states that favor same-sex marriage more than North Carolina, and of the 10 behind it, most are southern states.
What the amendment’s passage would mean for North Carolinians is as yet unclear. Opponents have spoken against it for a number of reasons, calling it anti-gay and a distraction.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was incensed that the General Assembly spent its time and money in the closing days of the legislative session on what he said is an unnecessary measure.
“North Carolina already has a law banning same sex marriage and has had it for 15 years. The law has not been challenged in the courts, but if it were, and a federal court ruled against it, the statute and/or constitutional amendment would be null and void,” said Rapp, in a legislative update. “We spent $150,000 to bring legislators to Raleigh for three days to vote on one constitutional amendment that was not reviewed by one of the House Judiciary Committees, is already a law but will cost even more money to put on the ballot in next May’s primary ballot.”
Before the chambers closed for the year, the issue was hotly debated on both the House and Senate floor, and in the eight months leading to the vote, things will likely get contentious in the public.
Davis said he’s already gotten a massive deluge of calls and emails from both sides of the debate.
In a June study assessing the legal implications of a constitutional amendment, UNC School of Law professors said it would throw into question the benefits and protections same-sex couples now enjoy under non-marriage partnerships such as civil unions.
The study said the dilemma lay in language that was “problematically vague.” An amendment would dictate that “marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”
But that’s not what’s in the law now, and not what’s ever been there before.
The law professors found that might cause problems with health insurance, end-of-life issues such as wills, along with child custody and domestic violence protections for both homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples alike.
Davis said this is not the intention.
“I think that they still have legal rights at their disposal to protect them and they can have a civil union,” he said. “It’s just not called marriage.”
Editor’s note: North Carolina legislators have voted to place a proposed constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage on the ballot in the May 2012 primary (see related story). The Smoky Mountain News asked Marilyn Jody, a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University and the author of a memoir dealing with her experiences as a lesbian and as a teacher, to write about her feelings on the action by legislators.
By Marilyn Jody
This week I wrote a letter to all the members of my family, telling them that once again it would be necessary for me to speak out in public. And Joanne called her children to ask if they had any reservations about being exposed, once again, as children of a lesbian mother.
We were referring to the simple fact that we had been asked to write a response to the decision of the North Carolina legislature to place an anti-gay amendment on the ballot. Once again we were reminded what it means to live your life in fear. Would our family suffer? Would we suffer because we were speaking out against discrimination, because some people still don’t understand?
It is difficult to say to people I know and respect, people of conscience and good will, that voting to deny the civil rights of any group of people is wrong. The Constitution was written to protect those rights. Most people in this state and in this country already believe that. But when convictions about same-sex marriage, a matter of personal belief, come into conflict with belief in “liberty and justice” for all, the result is a painful conflict of conscience. We have freedom of the press; we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech; we have the right to privacy. We don’t have the right to deny others those same rights. Not in America.
SEE ALSO: Same-sex marriage heads to the ballot
Same-sex orientation is not a choice, anymore than being left handed is a choice. I know that as I know I have brown eyes. But that isn’t the question. How to live within that reality is a choice that Joanne and I have had to make over and over again in our more than 70 years of life. We have chosen to live in a sacred, committed relationship, one that began more than 50 years ago.
We were married in Massachusetts three weeks after same-sex marriage first became legal in this country, a civil contract that is only symbolic, since we still have none of the rights and protections for our family that heterosexual couples have. We live with the reality that North Carolina law already excludes us from legal protections that are given to other parents and step-parents. As a mother and grandmother, Joanne continues to live with the fear that her children and their families could be hurt because of who she is, who we are.
That should not be so in America.
For most of my life, I lived in silence, in fear that my family would reject me, that my friends would desert me, that I would lose my job, even that I might be accused of criminal behavior or be physically assaulted. It was not until I taught a class on gay and lesbian literature at Western Carolina University that I was emboldened to write a book about that fear, the same one my students were still forced to endure as Joanne and I had done our whole lives.
In that book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, I wrote about the hurtful experiences my students encountered simply because they had enrolled in the class — the young man, now homeless, whose mother had rejected him when he told her he was gay, who told him she prayed to God to let him die rather than live in such sin. I wrote about the students I had known who committed suicide because they had been taught to hate themselves, taught by their families, their churches, their schools, and their government.
That should not be so in America
In writing and publishing a book about my life, I hoped to save others from some of the injury done to me and others by prejudice and misguided conviction. That is still my hope in writing this article. Given the choice, most people of faith would never choose to allow their beliefs to harm or hurt others.
But this proposed amendment to the Constitution does do harm — to our state, to our families, to all our lives. Same-sex marriage is already prohibited in North Carolina by state statute. What the proposed amendment does is further the political cause of a limited few and mislead fair-minded people into voting to rob ordinary people of the dignity and respect accorded to every other law-abiding citizen of this state. Millions of dollars will be spent on political ads in North Carolina over the next few months, promoting discrimination against people whose sexual orientation is different from that of the majority. Many young people will be reading and listening, feeling despair, not hope for their future. This amendment will do nothing to protect our families; it can destroy them.
I wrote a letter to my representative in Raleigh this week, thanking him for voting against placing the anti-gay amendment on the ballot. And I wrote to the Bishop of this Diocese of the Episcopal Church, the church I belong to, thanking him for signing the statement of church leaders in North Carolina opposing this effort to violate the civil rights of North Carolina citizens. I was truly grateful that I could actually speak freely to both state and church on the subject of my rights as a citizen and as a person of faith. That had not always been possible. But that could change if the ballot box is used as a weapon against a minority whose rights are at stake.
That should not be so in America.
(Dr. Marilyn Jody, professor emeritus at Western Carolina University, has taught literature and writing in multiple university settings that range from Ohio, Indiana, and New York to Alaska and the People’s Republic of China. She is a speaker on gay and lesbian issues in a variety of venues, including national conferences, schools, colleges, and churches. In recent months she has done signings of her book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, at City Lights Book Store in Sylva and Malaprop’s Book Store in Asheville as fundraisers in support of equality for the LGBT community. Her partner, Joanne Cleary, is a retired teacher and coach, the mother of two children and grandmother of four. She has been an activist in support of LGBT rights both in North Carolina and New York for more than 40 years. Marilyn and Joanne were married in Massachusetts in 2004, three weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in any state, 48 years after they first met.)