4 Worst Media Misrepresentations of North Carolina's Anti-Gay Amendment One

Human Rights

On Tuesday, May 8, just over 34 percent of North Carolina’s registered voters turned out to vote in the State’s primary election. They voted by a margin of 61 to 39 percent in favor of the controversial constitutional Amendment One. That Amendment states, "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized."

The first Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly since 1896 voted on September 14, 2011 to put the Amendment up for a vote and require only a simple majority for it to pass. Two powerful state organizations, the conference of the NC-NAACP and Equality-NC, joined forces shortly after, and worked tirelessly to mobilize communities throughout the State to oppose the Amendment. Despite their efforts, it was no surprise that the Amendment passed, as constitutional amendments to restrict the rights of LGBT citizens had already passed in 30 other states. Both before and after the election, the controversy has been widely misrepresented in both State and national media. Here are four of the most important corrections to what you have heard.

1. The Amendment’s scope is far broader than a mere constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Headlines throughout the United States, from the Los Angeles Times to Politico, announced on May 8 that North Carolina had passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But the headlines misrepresent the meaning of the Amendment and fail to underscore any of its implications beyond marriage.

This happened by design. The two major groups supporting the Amendment in North Carolina, Vote for Marriage NC and NC 4 Marriage, insisted on referring to Amendment One as a “marriage amendment” from the beginning, and they lied to the public – and the media – about what the Amendment will actually do. For example, Vote for Marriage NC’s website focuses on ensuring that the definition of marriage in North Carolina be understood as “the union between one man and one woman.” In fact, marriage has long been defined this way in North Carolina, but North Carolina residents who are not skilled at legal interpretation – that is, most North Carolinians – were led to believe that we were merely voting “for” or “against” a ban on gay marriage. Unfortunately, much of the media accepted this characterization too uncritically, and never really explained the Amendment’s scope to the public.

First, gay marriage was already banned in North Carolina in two different legal documents. The first, NC General Statute § 51-1, states, “A valid and sufficient marriage is created by the consent of a male and female person who may lawfully marry, presently to take each as husband and wife…” A second statute, the North Carolina Defense of Marriage Act, came into effect in 1996. Section 3 of that legislation clarifies the legal definition of marriage in the state, reading, “[T]he word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”

Amendment One goes a step further. It amends the Constitution to state, "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized." By instantiating this statement in the State Constitution, Amendment One takes challenges to the law out of voters’ hands and places it with State – and possibly federal – courts. In other words, voters cannot simply move to repeal Amendment One.

But the Constitutional change is not the end of it. Tracy Hollister, a full-time community activist who has led discussions and seminars on the legal implications of Amendment One throughout the State, says that just three words, "domestic legal union," make this Amendment far more drastic than the previous statutes because they open the way for very broad interpretation. In other words, a domestic legal union can be defined far more broadly than legal marriage.

Hollister tells AlterNet, “If the writers of the amendment wanted the amendment to simply codify existing laws into the constitution to prevent the ban on same-gender marriage from constitutional challenges, it would have said, 'Marriage between one man and one woman is the only marriage that shall be valid or recognized in this state." Instead of using the term marriage, they used the term "legal domestic union" and significantly broadened the language to have unintended consequences for families, children, women and seniors.”

UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Maxine Eichner has spoken extensively to delineate the definite consequences of the Amendment as well as the possible consequences. She says the Amendment definitely bars the state from passing same-sex marriage or civil union legislation, which extends rights to same-sex couples, in the future. Furthermore, it bans the State from passing domestic partnership laws, which extend legal rights to unmarried couples, no matter their sexual orientation. Not only that, but it invalidates “existing partnership benefits by municipalities for all unmarried couples,” no matter their sexual orientation. In other words, as Protect All NC Families, the coalition organization set up to fight Amendment One, explains on its website, the Amendment eliminates “health care, prescription drug coverage and other benefits for public employees and children receiving domestic partner benefits."

If this were not bad enough, there are a number of possible consequences to the Amendment that will need to be adjudicated in the courts. Protect NC Families explains the possible consequences as follows:

“A child of an unmarried parent could lose their health care and prescription drug coverage, putting the child’s health at risk. 

“A child could be taken away from a committed parent who has loved them their entire life if something happens to the other parent.

“Amendment One threatens existing child custody and visitation rights that are designed to protect the best interests of a child.

“Amendment One bans all other legal relationship recognitions—prohibiting North Carolina from ever recognizing civil unions and domestic partnerships. Thousands of North Carolinians rely on these legal protections. Removing these rights creates far-reaching and long-lasting harms for families from all walks of life.

“Amendment One would interfere with protections for unmarried couples to visit one another in the hospital and to make emergency medical and financial decisions if one partner is incapacitated.”

In addition to these problems, Amendment One could have devastating implications for current domestic violence protections in the State. Currently, domestic violence statutes are extended to protect all women, not merely women who are abused in the context of heterosexual marriage. There is some precedent for worrying that Amendment One will change this. When Ohio voters passed a similar amendment, according to Protect All NC Families, it “meant relationships other than marriage were no longer recognized under domestic violence statutes...[and] that domestic violence statutes protecting unmarried women were unenforceable until the state’s Supreme Court unraveled the legal mess some three years later.” But significant damage was done during those three years; 27 domestic violence convictions were dismissed or overturned, and no protections remained for women who were not married to their abusers.

It’s impossible to say whether or not the vote may have gone differently if all North Carolinians had known just how dangerous the Amendment would be. But the media certainly bears part of the blame for continuing to refer to the Amendment as a “constitutional ban on gay marriage” without exploring its full scope. Surely correct information may have swayed some voters on May 8 and resulted in a different outcome.

2. “Black social conservatives” cannot be blamed for the passage of Amendment One.  

The “Black vote” in North Carolina has received a great deal of scrutiny this week. There seems to be an unsubstantiated assumption in the media that Black voters are intrinsically homophobic. Rev. Dr. William Barber, President of the NC conference of the NAACP (NC-NAACP) tells AlterNet that he participated in media interviews in which journalists presumed that the Black community would be deeply divided by the Amendment – so much so that the debate over Amendment One could negatively affect President Obama’s chances of winning North Carolina in November. Barber, who oversees many NAACP chapters throughout North Carolina, and Ferrel Guillory, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, both tell AlterNet that they do not believe the issue of gay marriage will diminish Obama’s support among Black voters in North Carolina. Furthermore, Barber says, the Black churches and NAACP chapters with whom he works throughout the State do not see gay marriage as an agenda-setting issue. That is, he says, he works with people who prioritize such issues as poverty and economic inequality, not the Christian Right’s family values agenda.  

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an anti-gay organization profiled for its hard-core anti-gay stance by the Southern Poverty Law Center*, devoted extensive organizational power and resources to the statewide movement in favor of Amendment One. And they did this explicitly by using race as a wedge that they hoped would divide Black communities in North Carolina. In March, LGBT rights organization the Human Rights Campaign uncovered NOM documents that straightforwardly discussed the organization’s anti-gay marriage strategy throughout the country.  A 2009 document issued to NOM’s board of directors states, “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”

It continues, “The Latino vote in America is a key swing vote, and will be so even more so in the future, both because of demographic growth and inherent uncertainty: Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We must interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity - a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.”

In any case, Black voters in North Carolina who live in the wake of Jim Crow and the Republican Party’s racist “Southern strategy” are not oblivious to bald attempts at political cooptation. And in any case, they cannot be blamed for the high margin of people who supported the Amendment. One poll cited by Mother Jones said that Black voters supported the Amendment by 51%, a much, much smaller margin than the 69 percent of total voters who ultimately voted for the bill. Furthermore, Black North Carolinians represent only 21.5 percent of the state’s population. Whites, on the other hand, remain in the majority at 68.5 percent. Yet no headlines on May 8 asked how many white voters had supported the Amendment.

Some voting irregularities in Raleigh, which has a large Black population, cast even that slight margin in doubt. During the morning hours, corruption watchdog organization Democracy-North Carolina fielded phone calls from Raleigh voters whose ballots did not contain the Amendment. They were given ballots designated for 17-year olds who could vote in the primary on the basis that they would turn 18 before the November election, but who could not vote on Amendment One. At this writing, it is not clear how many voters this affected, or how many of these were Black. Because the overall vote favored the Amendment by such a wide margin, there may not be sufficient investigation into exact numbers. But could a sizable number of Black Raleigh voters have tilted the so-called “Black vote” against the Amendment? That is unclear, though it could certainly have narrowed the margin in favor of the Amendment among Black voters.

3. The movement to stop Amendment One was a grassroots effort of coalition building across racial difference.

During the protests against Proposition 8 in California, news media portrayed a mostly white, Human Rights Campaign-led movement dominated by middle and upper-middle class white men. There was a similar presumption there that Black people are so intrinsically homophobic that they supported the amendment en masse. As a result, LGBT people of color reported hearing racial slurs at protests against Proposition 8. Others were asked why they didn’t oppose Proposition 8 in light of the fact that members of the white LGBT community had strongly supported Obama. In some cases, LGBT people of color were holding anti-Proposition 8 signs, but that did not deter racist comments.   

The North Carolina anti-Amendment movement has been different from the one in California. The umbrella organization started by Equality-NC, Protect All NC Families built a powerful coalition of opponents that included a wide range of human rights and social justice organizations throughout the state. Groups as wide-ranging as the Alliance of Baptists, the ACLU of NC, the National Association of Social Workers-NC, the NC Coalition against Sexual Assault, Planned Parenthood of Central NC, the NC Council of Churches and many others joined the coalition. And contrary to the stereotype that Black people are generally homophobic, some of the loudest and most sustained protests against Amendment One came from North Carolina’s Black communities.   

William Barber, a heterosexual Disciples of Christ pastor, mobilized statewide chapters of the NC-NAACP to fight Amendment One. In turn, those chapters went on to recruit and organize countless Black pastors and congregations to stand against the Amendment. From the beginning, these supporters – many of them veterans of Civil Rights struggle – inserted powerful Civil Rights rhetoric into the movement. Barber says that this was intentional – indeed, he tells AlterNet, Civil Rights is about ensuring the constitutional promise of “equal protection under the law” for everyone. An Indiana native who moved to North Carolina during the 1960’s with parents dedicated to helping desegregate North Carolina schools, Civil Rights work has been central to his entire life. There is no question for him that any attempt to insert hatred or discrimination into the State Constitution is a struggle that is relevant for Black Civil Rights activists to take on.

In an article written shortly after the election, Barber explains the NC-NAACP’s opposition, writing, “Constitutional amendments almost always expand the rights of people against the power of the State. This has been the noble historical trend of constitutional amendments in America. We prohibited slavery. We stopped Jim Crow. We expanded the right to vote for freed slaves, for women, for young people. This is the first such discriminatory amendment placed in the NC Constitution since an amendment in 1875 that outlawed interracial marriage. This trick Amendment reverses the noble trend of constitutional amendments. It curtails family rights. It places a matter of conscience and personal belief in the hands of the state. It sets a precedent to allow a majority to vote to curtail the rights of a minority.”

He continues, “The real insult to African Americans and other religious people of color is that the same regressive forces behind this amendment are the same people who rushed bill after bill through the legislature, sometimes after midnight, to roll back our voting rights, our educational rights, our civil rights and our constitutional rights. Their purpose has been made abundantly clear. They want to undermine the constitutional role of government to operate for the good of the whole, provide equal protection under the law and ensure liberty and justice for all.”

Many other Black pastors have spoken out and helped reach their congregations. Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, the evangelical – and also heterosexual – pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in rural Hickory, NC has been another leader in the struggle. The proud recipient of a 2011 Equality Award from Equality-NC, Spearman tells AlterNet that he has been involved in the struggle against Amendment One from the beginning. He tells AlterNet that he found his earlier homophobic views challenged many years ago, when working as a chaplain at a historically Black college. He recalls many LGBT students who sought his counsel at the university, and one in particular who changed his conservative views on homosexuality once and for all. A gay student at the college came to him and said he was on the brink of suicide. At that moment, Spearman says it really clicked that the message he should give the student was one of love and acceptance.

At a 2011 rally against Amendment One, Spearman said, “This extreme legislation will only cause needless pain and suffering. It sends a message to major employers that North Carolina does not welcome a diverse workplace. It tells young people who are gay they’re second class citizens, unworthy of basic dignity and equal treatment. It is not fair and it is certainly not just.”

Both Barber and Spearman tell AlterNet that many Black North Carolinians with whom they had worked simply lacked basic knowledge about the bill. They say their strategy was largely to educate the Black community about what the Amendment could do. Almost invariably, former proponents of the Bill either stopped promoting it – or got directly involved in trying to prevent it. Barber recalls a phone call with one activist who was reduced to tears on hearing how damaging the Amendment could be.

There is no question that North Carolina’s movement against Amendment One was deeply enriched by the work of people of color. The news media’s focus on Black homophobia completely diminishes everything Black activists have done to fight alongside LGBT people in the State.

In a speech delivered before a largely LGBT group not long before May 8, Barber said,”I want each of you to know that I love and respect you as friends, brothers and sisters in the cause of justice. Never have I been prouder than to stand with you, connecting the dots of injustice and raising the call for a just society. We have stood tall and history will record that. We did not bow to wrong and history will record that. We have learned from each other and the Movement will be even stronger in the days to come. My faith teaches me that Truth ultimately rises and love will conquer hate. And the Psalmist reminds us all: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

He was right. This video demonstrates both his talent at the pulpit and his impassioned recruitment to the cause:

Though the movement did not manage to defeat Amendment One at the ballot, Protect All NC Families brought an unprecedented amount of diversity to the local gay rights movement. From the beginning, the coalition valued everyone who wanted to help out – and specifically sought the solidarity of groups like the NC-NAACP, who have deep roots – and a lot of respect – in the South. From the start, Equality-NC and the NC-NAACP promoted a region-specific movement that cast the liberation and freedom of LGBT people as something that is bound up with the liberation of everyone else. Moreover, in recognizing the tradition of progressive faith-inspired activism in the South, they brought people of faith – including Baptists, Reform Jews and others – together for a common purpose. Ultimately, more than 400 North Carolina pastors signed pledges promising to oppose the Amendment, as did many faith organizations.

Protect All NC Families was so powerful in some ways because it centered the ways in which all families in the State – not just families helmed by LGBT parents – would be harmed by the Amendment. Rather than denigrating the citizens of North Carolina, both national media and LGBT rights groups should be paying close attention to what anti-Amendment activists achieved in North Carolina. They could learn quite a bit from it. The vote itself may have brought out the worst in North Carolina, but the movement against it may have mobilized a degree of solidarity and community that we didn’t know existed.  

4. North Carolina’s vote was not caused by “poor inbred” Southerners.

As soon as the news broke that North Carolina voted in favor of Amendment One, insulting comments about the State overtook the Internet. Without acknowledging the 30 other states that voted to ban gay marriage before North Carolina, the state was immediately demonized. An Internet meme noting that first-cousin marriage is legal in the State was widely distributed. Rather than asking who paid for the campaign in favor of Amendment One, the media seemed to dismiss North Carolinians as “poor redneck white trash.” This was deeply insulting to the many people who fought to stop the Amendment.  

But it also drew on historical stereotypes about Southern poverty that have been used to denigrate people in the South. No one checked the laws of California after the passing of Proposition 8 to find out if first-cousin marriage is legal there. (No, but it is legal in many other states, many of them not Southern.) That the first impulse of the national Left was to mock “inbred” Southerners and not to show solidarity with LGBT activists in the State was deeply demoralizing for LGBT activists and their allies in the State who had worked very hard against Amendment One.

Queer-identified Kelli Joyce, 19, will graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill this Sunday. Next year, she will continue on to Yale Divinity School. She tells AlterNet, “I guess first I would note that no state has yet been able to defeat one of these amendments at the ballot. From NC to California, it's just a really hard fight. It's not a question of ‘poor southern rednecks,’ to me. In my experience, it's anyone who is unaware of the broad consequences, which the amendment's framers intentionally obscured. Or sometimes it's people who have an idea of what it does, but are just too civically disengaged to get out and vote, which is a problem everywhere. [North Carolina] voters also tend to be older, which affects the results. NC is progressive among Southern states. It has been, and still is. The loss of this one is heartbreaking, but I would attribute it to unclear wording and trickery more than to any idea that the NC population is somehow backward or inherently hateful.”

A native of Greensboro who grew up in an ultra-conservative Southern Baptist family, Joyce is quite proud of the movement she participated in. A grassroots effort from the start, Protect All NC Families received some financial assistance from the Human Rights Campaign but mainly relied on diverse groups within North Carolina. Joyce says, “This was a completely local movement. For example, in Greensboro, the people of faith group ordered over 2,000 yard signs. A [United Church of Christ] church fronted the money, and was paid back as others bought the signs at cost. People were distributing the signs from the back of cars in church parking lots and from independent coffee shops in addition to the normal places like rallies. We wrote letters to the editor. And most importantly, we focused heavily on talking to our own friends and families.”

Within about 24 hours after the election results came in, 14,000 people had signed a petition calling on Democrats to move the Democratic National Convention out of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a reactionary and incoherent response, particularly as Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, was one of just eight counties where Amendment One was defeated. The residents of Charlotte, which includes a large and vibrant LGBT community, should not be punished for something that they did not cause. And even if they had, as Jessica Luther points out at Shakesville, liberals – and particularly LGBT rights activists – in the state need support, not exclusion, from the Democratic National Convention. Given the President’s recent embrace of marriage equality, the Convention provides a great opportunity to remind those of us who fought the Amendment that we are not alone.

As John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, who lives in Chapel Hill, NC tweeted on the night of Amendment One’s passage, “[G]o ahead and hate on my home if you must. And hate more on 30 other states where wonderful people gave blood [and] sweat to work for freedom.” Or, he continued, “[Y]ou can do as we will do in North Carolina [and] roll up your sleeves [and] know that” the “hateful efforts” to pass the Amendment by the far-Right “are an attempt to hold back the sea.”

 *An earlier version of this story said that the NOM was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center; this is untrue and has been corrected. We regret the error. 

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