RALEIGH, N.C. — Sparks flew when two competing press conferences were held last week at the North Carolina General Assembly. At the center of debate, a proposed anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment that could strip away marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other relationship recognition for same-sex couples.
Freshman Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford) was there. The state’s only openly gay legislator, Brandon had been present for Democrats’ press conference outlining their opposition to the amendment. Several anti-gay ministers had already gathered in the press room, awaiting their own press conference organized by House Majority Leader Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) and Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth). Heated, passionate words were exchanged, with Brandon stressing tolerance and equality and the pastors preaching division and exclusion.
“I take it very personally,” Brandon told qnotes via telephone. “I’m the only openly gay member of the legislature and there’s definitely a responsibility that comes with that when we’re talking about something so personal.”
Brandon said he found it moving that his Democratic colleagues stood up against the amendment.
“I think it’s very powerful for my colleagues to stand up and talk about democratic ideals and what they’ll defend, what we’ve always fought for,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s always about trying to move people from one place to the next.”
Though he didn’t ask for the privilege, Brandon has been the de facto face of the amendment debate for many at the legislature and across the state. Colleagues are looking to him for his guidance and LGBT citizens, both from within and outside his district, see him as “their” voice in Raleigh. He’s been sharing his personal story with his colleagues in attempts to move their frames of reference.
“I have tremendous respect for my Republican colleagues and I respect that this is a deeply-held belief for many of them,” Brandon said. “This conversation I’ve had with Republicans and even some Democrats is the same conversation that you have to have with family members when you come home trying to explain who you are, what you are and what that means. It’s a very similar conversation.”
Moving people from one place to the next is Brandon’s motto. In dozens of intimate settings and quiet dialogue, Brandon said he’s hopeful many of his colleagues have come to new understandings. He wants his colleagues to see the debate not from the perspective of “choice,” but rather as a basic issue of social justice.
“Once they start realizing that this isn’t a choice, that people are who they are, they start looking at it from a different perspective, just like black people can’t help that they’re black or white people can’t help they are white or women can’t help they’re women,” the lawmaker said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
One legislator’s change of reference, in particular, was among the most inspiring for Brandon. In previous years, this legislator had co-sponsored the anti-LGBT amendment. In conversation and dialogue, Brandon saw a change.
“God had to really work with me on this issue,” Brandon said, reciting the legislator’s remarks to him, “and at the end of the day I realized I have to stand before God just like Marcus does and I have no right to judge him.”
Brandon is confident the legislator will now vote against the amendment.
“That is a beautiful movement,” he said, “not for political reasons, not because there’s an election, not because of the Democrats or Republicans, but because it was personal.”
As lawmakers head back to Raleigh for debate on the amendment today, Brandon is hopeful his conversations have had a lasting impact and that his Democratic Party, in particular, will continue to live up to its own ideals.
“We stand on basic democratic values,” he said. “We don’t judge people. We have always fought for people and for equality and for opportunity. Those are basic, fundamental principles of this party. A lot of people had to get over personal feelings about women and African-Americans and because of our ideals we were able to do that. We’ve been able to corral the consensus.”