A State of Many Colors: Marriage Equality in North Carolina

Produced by Bit & Grain

North Carolina is a state of many colors. Our diversity is often reflected in the balance between traditions — red and blue, conservative and progressive — that continually shift the culture of politics in our state. One of the more recent examples is North Carolina’s journey to marriage equality. 

Friday’s Supreme Court ruling brought marriage equality to the entire country, but since October 2014, same-sex couples in North Carolina have been able to legally wed. The road to this landmark step in our state has been long. For weeks, Bit + Grain has interviewed members of the LGBTQ community about the impact of marriage equality on their lives. Today we present the stories and diverse voices of members of the community, in their own words. We conducted these interviews before and after the Supreme Court’s ruling last week. As a whole, they capture the anticipation, exasperation and joy of North Carolinians who waited for marriage equality at home and across our nation.


Pastor Nancy E. Petty

Nancy E. Petty is the pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. She has worked at Pullen since 1992, the year the church voted to accept gay and lesbian couples into church, to allow gays and lesbians to be full members of the congregation and serve in any capacity they wanted to, and to bless same-sex covenants. On November 20, 2011, Nancy and the congregation of Pullen Baptist voted unanimously to no longer sign marriage licenses at the church until marriage equality was the law of the land in the state.  Nancy was a plaintiff in General Synod of the UCC v. Reisinger, the case that ultimately allowed marriage equality in North Carolina, and she and her wife Karla married this May. Her work as an advocate for the LGBT community is deeply tied to her faith.

Nancy discusses her journey to advocating for marriage equality outside of the church here.

 Tell us about your journey to reconciling your identity with your faith.
I grew up in the Western part of North Carolina, Shelby. We’re not talking about the progressive mecca of North Carolina. By the time I was in fifth grade, I knew that I was gay. I don’t know that I knew that word, but I knew that I was gay, and my family was very involved in church. I didn’t grow up in these churches where it was just hellfire and brimstone, but I knew enough that this wasn’t going to go well, that being gay was a problem, and so I just didn’t talk about it.
It was actually at Southeastern [Baptist Theological Seminary] that I was able to begin talking about the scriptural aspect with my peers who were there who were gay… about The Bible, and homosexuality and our experiences. We all struggled. We were all struggling with how do we interpret these scriptures. I remember one morning walking across campus, it was in the spring. Do you ever have those moments when you look up all of a sudden and everything is alive? I mean just everything is alive. The green is never as green as it is in that moment again? Just the light? Everything. I’m walking across campus, and I look up and the morning is like that, and the thought that came into my head was: the biggest sin you can commit is to not be who God created you to be, and God created me to be a same-gender loving person. And for me that was it. I needed nothing else.
It didn’t matter to me what the scripture said because I knew I had a story, and I knew that whatever was in that biblical text that didn’t square up with my very being--not my actions — but who God created me to be somehow had to be reconciled. God’s revelation continues throughout all of history and humanity.  There’s not a period, there’s a comma, to the biblical text. Individuals have to reconcile that for themselves.

In 2011, your church voted unanimously to abstain from issuing marriage licenses until marriage equality was the law of the land. How did you get there as a congregation?
I think that came out of a 20-year story. It didn’t just happen. The congregation had made this other decision in 1992. They had been living it. I think coming to that moment was more about, ‘Of course this is what we should be doing. Of course we should be treating all our members equally until everybody could be treated the same,’ but it just took someone saying it. At a church like Pullen where there is so much diversity we don’t ever have congregational meetings where there is a unanimous vote. It’s just unheard of at a Baptist church. When they presented that it was a unanimous vote. A unanimous vote in this church. It was very emotional to think about. It still is.

How did you feel when marriage equality arrived here? 
As the decision came down on October the 10th of 2014, for marriage equality in this state, I was down at the Register of Deeds office. I became so overwhelmed with the fact that for almost 23 years, this congregation had been blessing same-sex covenants. It still blows my mind to think about that.
For years what I said to gay couples that I was marrying is that what really matters is that the church blesses your union. What really matters is that God blesses your union, and the piece of paper is just a piece of paper, and that’s really not what matters. I think I had conditioned myself to believe that because I wanted to be grateful for what this church had done. I didn’t want to create more conflict or cause more conflict, and so you just kind of settle for what's given to you without really thinking about [how] this is a right that I deserve. This is a fundamental right given to me as a citizen of the United States, and I should be fighting for it. This is about people being treated equally. It’s much bigger than not wanting to create conflict. It’s about our rights as gay people. So I think I woke up to the realization that we’re not second-class citizens. Gay people are not second-class citizens, and if fighting for my rights as a citizen creates conflict, then that's what needs to happen.
I still don’t think I realized how significant it is to be treated equally until I went down to the Register of Deeds to get my own marriage license, and I’m filling out those papers just like everybody else, and I’m realizing okay if for some reason this doesn’t work there is a legal process here. This is serious. This is binding. This is legally binding.  Once I got through that process of thinking, ‘I’m really signing something that binds me legally to another person,’ then I was able to move into this place of feeling how empowering that is. What a true gift and blessing it is for my state that I live in, that I grew up in, that I’ve only lived in my whole life--to say you are equal to everybody else in how we are treating citizens in the state of North Carolina. You have the rights of any other people in this state to get married. I left that office, and I’m like, ‘Honey we just got a marriage license. We’re holding a marriage license, and we’re getting married on Sunday, and it’s going to be legal. We will have all the rights that go with that, and all the responsibility that goes with that.’
To have that legitimized by the society that I live in, that I have to function in, that has all the power to tell me what can and cannot happen — it’s important. It’s vitally important.


Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt has worked as an openly gay elected public official since 2001. Mayor Kleinschmidt moved to Goldsboro when he was 10 and taught in public schools after college until he went to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill where he began working as an LGBTQ advocate in the late 90s. He traveled across the state campaigning against Amendment One in 2012, and was an attorney on General Synod of the UCC v. Reisinger, the case that ultimately overturned the amendment and allowed marriage equality in North Carolina.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt reflects on his work with rural LGBT communities here. 

Tell us about running for town council in 2001 as an openly gay candidate.
I was not just open about it. I was enthusiastic about sharing that fact. This is the first town in the South to elect an openly gay person to office, and that happened in 1987 [with] Joe Herzenberg. He was one of my mentors. He died in 2006, but he helped guide me, and I was so proud of him. He was just a hero. I think he was to a lot of people in Chapel Hill. After I was elected to council in 2001, I quickly joined the Equality North Carolina Board.
What was your role in the campaign against Amendment One?
That was a tough year. We were really proud that we’d held off an amendment for a long time. North Carolina was the only state in the South not to have one. It was quite remarkable. We were really proud of the way we were able to work with the legislature and the governor's office, but in 2010 we knew it was over. We gathered together when the referendum was announced, and we strategized. We talked about how we were going to deploy funds and try to win.
I spoke in different places all across North Carolina. I was a regular press interview for people whenever there was an issue around the amendment. I told everyone who would listen to me that we were going to win. That’s what you do. And I believed it. What’s the point in putting in that much effort if you don’t actually think you’re going to win? I figured that we could win if we did everything just perfectly. 
That was a very difficult time.  It was a tough loss obviously, but it really energized our community--the LGBT community--in a way that we couldn’t have been. There was a lot of sadness, but a lot of hope. We knew when Amendment One passed it was going to be short lived. We just knew it.
You’ve lived and worked in rural and urban areas and the state. What’s your perspective on the LGBT movement in rural areas? 

You know the truth is there are lots of LGBT people who live all throughout North Carolina’s rural areas. I remember before I graduated from high school these two guys moved across the street from my parents.  They were neighbors of ‘Whom you didn’t speak.’ [After] I left and went to college and am teaching in Charlotte, I remember going home for Christmas, and the two guys came over with a six-pack and a candle or something. Apparently over the years they’d all become buddies, and the traditional Christmas gift for my dad in the neighborhood was a six pack of beer. They’d brought it over, and my mom gave them whatever it was she gave them every year, and they it was just like, ‘Oh yeah we love them. We all do yard work together.’  Everything had changed.
What had happened was that there was this couple who lived in the neighborhood, and they were not going to not acknowledge them. Southerners say, ‘hello.’ They are nice to your face. There is this level of hospitality that just you can’t ignore. You must do it or who are you? You’re obviously not from around here if you’re not pleasant at least to your face. I think that kind of reflexive pleasantness over the course of many years turned into actual sincere appreciation, like, trust, comfort [and then] to, ‘Oh yeah we love the guys across the street.’ They became friends.

I think that’s going on in every community in North Carolina. While I might be personally a toxic figure to people when I come in and start talking or somehow invade their space [as] 'the super gay from Chapel Hill,' I think that when I do that I’m giving strength to those couples who moved in and singles and just people who are members of the LGBT communities in the rural area--I’m giving them strength to respond. I’m not really there for the haters. I’m there for the community and to empower them. Because that change can occur. I’ve seen it happen, but they have to do the heavy lifting. I mean all I can do is come in and talk. I can give them tools. I can talk to them about issues so they can be articulate and thoughtful, but I can’t make the change happen. They have to be creating relationships, but hopefully with those tools they can be able to do that. Just like the couple with my parents did. 

All this polarizing and hyperbolic language about the sky falling, and the devil rising up or whatever is supposed to happen, that’s all just this distraction, this political distraction. I think real lives and real people don’t respond that way to the human beings who are living next door. They just don’t. That’s just the way people live.

You were asked to speak at a gathering of advocates after Friday’s ruling. What did you feel moved to say?
I screamed. It was a hallelujah kind of scream. 2012 was horrible, but we won, and we won big. It’s okay to rejoice, to dance and sing and this is the time for it. You can drag me back down to the next fight on employment non-discrimination tomorrow. Right now it’s time to enjoy.
We asked so much of people over the last few years. We asked them to give money, we asked them to give time, we asked people to put their names on legal papers to sue the government for these rights, we have asked people to go across the street and knock on the door and introduce themselves as the gay couple who lives across the street. We’ve asked people to do that! Very difficult things! We asked people to put their partner's picture on their desk at work. We asked them to show and demonstrate how important marriage equality was. It was getting exhausting. When the big win came, those people--everybody deserves to celebrate because they all did it. I didn’t do anything. Everybody who was there whether they were gay or lesbian or bisexual or an ally--everyone who was there--they’re the ones who did it. 


Anne Brannon & Lisa Badalamenti

Lisa Badalmenti and Anne Brannon are getting married on October 10th, 2015, which happens to be the the first anniversary of marriage equality in North Carolina. Lisa, who works in sales, hails from Charlotte, and Anne, who works in marketing, is from Southern Pines. The couple now lives in Raleigh with their dog Penny. They met through mutual friends and became engaged two weeks after Amendment One was overturned last fall. Prior to that, they considered marrying in a state that would legally recognize their union.

Despite the Amendment One results in 2012, Lisa and Anne never wanted to leave North Carolina. Listen here as they share their reaction to the October 2014 arrival of marriage equality.

Tell us about getting engaged.
Lisa: We’ve been together officially for five years in December of this year. We started talking about what we would do about getting married probably a couple of years in. Our families are very supportive, but [they] have come a long way from when we first told [them]. So it was always kind of like a fearful what do we do? What are we going to do? How are we going to do it?
We came up with a plan together of proposing to each other via talking to our families, and saying we want to do this, and we want not necessarily your blessing but your support. Neither one of us wanted to go to our parents and get permission and go through all that. That was our plan in the beginning of 2014.
Of the two of us she’s quiet and shy. So I took it upon myself that I didn’t want that to be what happened, so I went to her parents, and I went to my parents. I got a ring and worked up the courage and proposed on a trip that was supposed to be for my birthday weekend in the mountains.
Anne: Hijacked my plans.
Lisa: We were at my parents’ mountain house and I proposed while drinking coffee. She had no idea because we didn’t have that plan. We had the plan of going together and going to our parents, but that’s not the way I roll.

How did you feel when Amendment One passed in North Carolina?
Lisa: I remember the day. There were a lot of people that I worked with at that time that were gay, and some people left work. They were really upset about it. I just remember thinking, ‘wow.’ This really sucks, and there are a lot of people who are really affected by it, not just me.
Anne: I wasn’t surprised by it. I was annoyed by it, but I also had this feeling that it wouldn’t last just because of the general trend of how things were moving in this country… it felt like it happened sooner [though].
Lisa: I felt like it was going to happen in my 40s, and I’d be like ‘Where was this when I was young?’
How did you feel when marriage equality arrived here?
Lisa: We’ve always been who we are. It’s not really changed how we are planning to live our future. This is just who we are. Yes, it’s amazing, and we are very excited and thrilled that it happened, but it just wasn’t something I was ever expecting. Maybe I’m in shock. I don’t know.
Anne: I’m just ready for [the Supreme Court] to make some sort of stand. Hopefully it will go the way that I prefer, and I feel like it could, but I also feel like sometimes they like to play it safe, so they might go for more of a middle ground solution of leaving it up to the states. If they did that I don’t know what that would mean for states like ours where it was voted by citizens and overturned by a circuit court. I’m just anxious I guess. The thought of it being a rollercoaster is frustrating. What do we do then?


Jason Dalton

Jason Dalton is a realtor in Raleigh. He moved to Winston-Salem from rural Virginia as a high school student and has lived in North Carolina ever since. Jason knew as a young child that he was gay, but for years thought he’d never live his life openly as a gay man, and for nearly three decades he did not. This is his story.

Jason was building a house when marriage equality arrived. Listen here to learn how it changed the way he imagined family life in his new home.  

Tell us about your journey to coming out.
When I was in the sixth grade, I came home from school and someone had been mean to me and called me queer. My mother said, “Do you like boys or girls?” I remember almost passing out, and I turned my head to the left and said ‘Well Mom, girls.’ I knew what she’d like to hear.

I thought it was so far-fetched. I never thought it would be a reality. I never thought it would be a possibility. I never thought I would live my life as a gay man. [Eventually] I shifted the gears of worrying about pleasing everyone else in the whole wide world, and became comfortable being by myself, existing. I had a different tone of voice. I wasn’t a scared little duckling.
How did you feel when Amendment One passed in North Carolina?
I remember thinking to myself how assbackwards is this? Do the damn gays need their own damn water fountain? And can I pay less taxes? Because I’m not being treated as an equal citizen.

How did you feel when marriage equality arrived here?
In the back of mind I thought if we got our first black president. I thought this can happen, but I'm also a realist. I was shocked. I thought about what it’d be like to have a husband. At the time I was building a house and had designed a room for my nephews. I designed it so it had an adjoining bathroom and a big closet because I wanted them to be able to come and spend as much time as [they wanted when] they got older.

When that ruling changed, it shifted [to] okay that could be my child’s nursery and the same functionality exists. I don’t have to designate this as my nephews. It could be my husband [and my]--it could be our child’s room. It would just be perfect. That’s what went through my head. They could walk down stairs to me working in my office, and we could walk the one block down to the park [or] to the school in the neighborhood.
I was going to fill it up with love no matter what. I wanted the space to be so that we could spread out, and it could just be filled with love, but when that changed it was like… it could be my own. It could be my own. It could be like everybody else that is a family unit with a child. I could have the same exact thing. 


Quinton Harper

Quinton Harper is a community organizer from the small eastern North Carolina town of Snow Hill where he was embraced as a member of the LGBT community. He joined the Coalition to Protect NC Families in March of 2012 to campaign against Amendment One.

Quinton shares the philosophy that continues to inspire his work as a community organizer here.

Tell us about growing up in Snow Hill.
It was just a love fest growing up in the small country town of Snow Hill, playing football [and] being I guess an all around all-American high school student, and being LGBT, and having a group around me. We called ourselves the rainbow clique — the rainbow family.  I think it just amazes me to this day and amazes anybody who I’m sharing my upbringing with about how tolerant they were, and how much they just allowed us to exist, and have fun with who we were. I think that says a lot about small communities and their nurturing of the youth that grew up there.
I speak about that sense of community because that’s I think indirectly why I ended up working for the Amendment One campaign as a community organizer. I had been invested in communities since my time of growing up in Snow Hill. It was just a natural transition.
What was it like to work on the Amendment One campaign?
The Amendment One campaign was definitely one of the high points of my career as a community organizer. From March to May it was 10-10 organizing, calling volunteers, asking them to come out and canvass and go to communities and knock on doors, [and to do] voter recruitment, voter registration and canvassing. We encountered the range of perspectives. Some of my volunteers had conversations that made them cry — not in a positive way. I think we had over 1,000 volunteer shifts, over 100,000 phone calls made, and I think we knocked on over 500 doors in Durham County. I had moms and dads coming out because they had LGBT children. I had grandmothers coming out because they had LGBT grandchildren. I had just a range of amazing folks who all had their individual reasons for being against Amendment One.
When Election Day was over, it reminded me of the North Carolina that is perceived. But it also taught me that even in defeat there is victory. We got our asses kicked, but the community and the fact that all of these folks would come out and support our efforts was huge for me. The fact that we were subsequently were able to get marriage equality — I tie that directly to the Amendment One campaign. Even in defeat there is victory. If it had not been for the fight against Amendment One there would not have been that community there to provide visibility for the movement. Sometimes I think you just have to assert your rights and assert them loud and strong and let folks know that you are there.

What was the ruling on Friday like for you?
That day as with most major days I think I just sat in a corner and took it all in and processed it. I’ve had the weekend, and I don’t know that I have fully processed it, and I think that process will come when I’m standing at a clerk of court and signing the marriage certificate. When I see the fruits of that labor.
It’s certainly celebratory. It’s definitely a great time in America where we’ve worked to sustain change and equality for all, but I think my perspective is a little bit different. Last week was a very emotional week. We got marriage equality on Friday, healthcare for all on Thursday, but we as a country had also been dealing with Charleston. This year in particular we’ve been dealing with police violence with folks who look like me  — black men who are my brothers. There is so much to celebrate, but there is also so much to point a finger at and say, we should do better.
With Amendment One and just social justice issues in general — the equality of one furthers the equality of all. I’m a firm believer [that] we are all in this together. The collective spirit of justice and equality is what drives me to continue pressing forward. 


Lee Storrow

Lee Storrow is from Asheville and currently resides in Chapel Hill, where he serves on the Chapel Hill Town Council. He is the youngest of less than a dozen openly gay elected officials in North Carolina.

Lee reflects on Amendment One’s impact on North Carolina communities here.

You were on Town Council during the Amendment One referendum. What do you remember about that time?
One of things I remember being a struggle about that campaign was what you were asking people to do was really confusing. Because typically we assume voting yes was a vote yes for gay marriage, but the question was do you want to amend the constitution to say this, so yes was an affirmative vote against gay marriage. No was a supportive vote for gay marriage.
It was tough to turn out the base and the voters that we needed to try to win that referendum. I did a little bit of work on Election Day. I remember a lot of people around me being really, really sad and it being really, really tough. It symbolically impacted our entire community. To express worth and validation of relationships and partnerships. For me as an individual, I know folks who had been couples for three, four, five years and some people for decades who I think really wanted that opportunity.
I think being involved in the public policy process and as a town council member, I’m often thinking about what our community looks 20, 30 years out. There are very few immediate public policy wins. You’re always thinking about growth and community standards and what you want to build for the future, and I think that translates to some thoughts and beliefs about this type of work as well.

How did you feel when it was overturned?
If you want to talk about what emotionally impacted me…that was ten times more powerful and more emotional than the Amendment One vote. I went to the Orange County courthouse the first day that the Register of Deeds was officiating and providing certificates to validate gay relationships. It was really powerful to be there. There were a couple of heterosexual couples who came who were already just planning to get married that week, and I think they just thought it’d be cool to be able to say 'We got our marriage license on the same day that gay couples were able to get it.' It was a really jubilant joyful experience.

What is next for the movement?

People are comfortable and able to live their life in a more open way than they ever have before. I think you’ve seen the most rapid change on LGBTQ equality issues in the last two to three years. That still doesn’t mean it’s safe, and there are obviously places that you don’t have legal protections. There are still risks for people depending on where you live, who your family is [and] what type of professional relationships and professional positions you’re in.