LGBT advocate Ryan Burris weighs in on Wilmington’s steps toward equality
Historically, North Carolina teeters between red and blue during election season. A diverse state, the political climate ever shifts. After going blue for Obama in the 2008 presidential election, the Tar Heel state since marked a shift toward the right. As a result, the rights of voters, women and families have been infringed upon.
Perhaps one of the most notable cases of North Carolina’s attempts to strip away the rights of its citizens came with the passing of Amendment One. The controversial piece of legislation banned same-sex couples from being able to legally marry, and it negatively impacted unmarried heterosexual couples.
Recently the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an organization that champions the LGBT community in the fight for equality, released their Municipal Equality Index (MEI) which rates US cities on how well they accommodate their LGBT residents. The report takes into consideration non-discrimination laws, relationship recognition, employment and contracting policies, inclusiveness of city services, law enforcement and municipal leadership on matters of equality.
Not surprisingly, North Carolina’s current political trajectory culminated in below-admirable results, with an average score of the six cities rated (Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Fayetteville, Greensboro and Winston-Salem), falling at a mere 42 out of 100. Durham and Charlotte serve as the state’s most exemplary areas, scoring 56 and 51 respectively. Fayetteville rounded out the bottom of the list and received only 23 points.
Though Wilmington was not included in the index, local equality crusader Ryan Burris shed light on the data. Spurred by a tragic hate crime that occurred in the area, Burris kindled a flame for political activism. He co-founded the Wilmington No H8 group, which began as a protest against the hate-fueled violence enacted against Chet Saunders and Chaz Housand. The two men were beaten unconscious in Wilmington’s historic downtown in 2009. The emotions evoked by the attacks lead Burris to participate in the March for Equality in Washington D.C. that year.
Currently, he serves as the co-chair of the Wilmington Stonewall Democrats Group. His additional efforts in Wilmington range from assisting Equality NC and the HRC, to backing LGBT political candidates, like Deb Butler and Danny Hefner, to holding an annual holiday party which collects toys for children infected with HIV/AIDS. With such extensive involvement, Burris readily offers his insights as to where Wilmington would fall had it been included in the MEI.
“I do feel Wilmington would probably come in with a score around 30,” he estimates. Considering North Carolina’s current constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the less-than impressive results of the MEI don’t surprise Burris. Still, he considers Wilmington one of the top 10 progressive cities in the state. Out of the 100 counties in North Carolina, seven came out against Amendment One once the ballots were counted in 2012. Only 153 votes prevented New Hanover County from being the eighth county against the equality-thwarting measure. Burris considers this a step in the right direction for the region.
Burris points to organizations such as Wilmington Pride, The Frank Harr Foundation, UNCW Pride, UNCW LGBTQIA Center, St. Jude Metropolitan Community Church, Universal Unitarian Church and Cape Fear SAGE as being local and vital forces which cultivate a voice for Wilmington’s LGBT community. As well, Burris praises the support garnered by local officials.
“[My colleagues and I] have met with the sheriff department’s chief, Ed McMahon, in the past, as well as Wilmington’s chief of police, Ralph Evangelous,” Burris explains. “It’s probably been two years now, but both were very understanding and supportive of the LGBT community.”
They even planned to mandate a LGBT sensitivity program as part of officers’ training. Burris concedes knowing whether it came to fruition, but he ensures its implementation is on his agenda in the coming months.
“We have a fairly pro-equality city council,” Burris also enthuses. Still, support from the council failed the anti-Amendment One sentiment, as did many legislative boards throughout the state. As far as the treatment of LGBT citizens residing in the area, hate crimes still occur. In 2011, an LGBT youth celebrated his 21st birthday with a brutal beating after being followed out of a downtown restaurant. The victim, Michael Nelmark, reported being attacked from out of nowhere and having homophobic slurs hurled at him. Such happenings substantiate the work that still needs to be done locally, despite evidence of evolving attitudes.
Looking toward the future, Burris sets his sights on the controversial teachings of Myrtle Grove Christian School. In many people’s minds, the educational outlet should ideally nurture the growing minds of the community’s youth and instill compassion, much as the Christian message endorses. Still, the school Correction: at one point requested that families of attending children pledge to not support or participate in “a gay lifestyle.”
Government funded With the potential to garner tax-payer footed student tuition vouchers in 2014, the school’s anti-equality agenda has stirred a lot of unrest in the Port City. Burris held a joint press conference with Equality NC, teachers and religious leaders on Tuesday, November 26th, to address local concern.
“Supporters from all communities in Wilmington are standing up and speaking out about Myrtle grove Christian School,” Burris enthusiastically reports. The outpouring of support for this recent obstacle serves as testament for the Cape Fear area’s advancements toward inclusiveness.
“I’m a firm believer that a message of love, inclusion, acceptance and equality are very important factors in ensuring happiness in any community as a whole,” Burris advocates.