Religion shapes same-sex marriage debate in North Carolina

At the Charlotte Unity party, thrown by North Carolina's LGBT community during the recent Democratic National Convention, the general feeling was that President Barack Obama is a hero. But the state itself has banned same-sex marriage, and is home to some virulently homophobic preachers. Who exactly speaks for North Carolina?
At the Charlotte Unity party during the Democratic National Convention Sept 3-6, members of North Carolina's LGBT community toasted Barack Obama, seen here as a cardboard cutout. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC )

At a huge party in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention hundreds of people milled about – cocktails in hand – in themed rooms. A barbershop choir sang, a classical quartet played and loads of delegates and Charlotte residents had their pictures taken with a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama.

One guy grabbed Obama’s cutout crotch. A woman held a rainbow over his head for her photo. And yet another draped an orange feather boa around Obama’s cutout neck.

This was the Charlotte Unity party, throw by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community during the recent Democratic National Convention. The general feeling? Obama is our hero.

"Yes, we love Obama," said Janice Covington, the first transgendered person to ever be elected as a delegate in the state of North Carolina. "Obama will be re-elected. Obama is the only president ever in the history of the United States that’s ever given us anything we ever wanted."

There is, of course, much to celebrate. Obama used his presidential authority to thwart Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the 1993 law that banned gay and lesbians from serving openly in the military. In May, Obama became the first sitting president to publicly support same-sex marriage, even if he was dragged into it. And the Democrats made history, again, by including it in their platform in Charlotte.

But does it mean anything at all, in practical terms, to the gay community in North Carolina?

Religious opposition to gay marriage

In May, the state passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman as the only legal union. The vote made North Carolina the 30th state to ban gay marriage.

"Growing up in the south, there is a lot of resentment towards gay marriage based in religion. There are a lot of people who cannot separate religion from marriage," says Mark Gordon, a young man outside the Unity Charlotte event.

"I guess the biggest hold-up would be small towns and small-minded people that just are ignorant to the community. They view it as blasphemy. That it is an abomination against God," he adds, "which it isn’t."

Janice Covington, seen at the Charlotte Unity party, is the first transgendered person to ever be elected as a delegate in the state of North Carolina. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Indeed, several rural, North Carolina pastors have been caught on tape — which was then posted on YouTube, presumably by shocked parishioners — preaching things so outrageous, you’d think they came from another era, say Nazi Germany.

In May, Pastor Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., said, "Our president getting up and saying it was alright for two men to marry. I tell you right now, I was disappointed bad."

Pastor Worley went on: "The Bible is against it, I am against it, God is against it."

Then he took it to an extreme: "I figured out a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers … build a great big large fence… put all the lesbians in there. Fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing to the gays and queers… in a few years, they will die out." Worley wasn’t fired.

And he’s certainly not alone in his views, not in this state.

An African-American pastor recently preached that "we are not far from a union between a person and a beast." It should be noted that the African-American population in the U.S. is largely off-side with Obama on the issue, perhaps because of the church.

Most are expected to still vote for the president, but disagree with his position on same-sex marriage. 

Pastor Sean Harris, at the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, suggested that "parents should punch their gay-acting children."

One man's experience

None of this sits too well with Jim Hock, a married, gay man who chose to live in the progressive city of Charlotte. He’s seen the preacher videos.

"You kept hearing ‘Amen, Amen,’ and I guarantee you, some kid was beat up after church that day," Hock said.

So North Carolina waddles along, as does much of the United States, despite the president’s words and attempts at inclusion.

In 1996, the federal government, under president Clinton, passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. It’s being challenged in court, but hasn’t been resolved.

Only six states have same-sex laws. Additional laws that would legalize same-sex marriage in the states of Washington and Maryland were passed in 2012, but will be subject to a referendum during the November election.

Hock, for his part, says it’s all due to the power of religion in the U.S., as he has witnessed in North Carolina.

"It is religion. That is the whole thing," he says in his southern drawl.

So he turned to Canada. Hock was married in Saint James Cathedral in Montreal in 2004. He thought it important to be officially married to his spouse – even if the couple has no spousal benefits or status whatsoever in North Carolina.

"Jim and James got married at the Saint James Cathedral in Montreal. How appropriate is that?" he said.

He and James won’t consider moving out of state. They have too much family in and around Charlotte. They’ll just have to wait for the place to come around to his way of thinking.

Hock’s estimate as to when he might see same-sex marriage legalized in N.C. and the United States more broadly?

Maybe 10 years. A long wait.