Rainbow-tinted gun sit-in a sign of unity among minorities, say LGBT advocates

FILE – Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., right, puts his arm around Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., during an news conference on gun legislation, Wednesday, June 22, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. LGBT advocates say black lawmakers like Lewis are important leaders to help Democrats unify behind equality issues.
FILE – Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., right, puts his arm around Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., during an news conference on gun legislation, Wednesday, June 22, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. LGBT advocates say black lawmakers like Lewis are important leaders to help Democrats unify behind equality issues. AP

An undercurrent of LGBT advocacy during a recent 26-hour gun control sit-in at the U.S. Capitol shows a deepening political unity among minority groups – particularly between black lawmakers and activists for LGBT rights, according to North Carolina’s three congressional Democrats who participated.

“Gun control is an issue and yes, there was a lot of focus on that. But, if you think about it, the whole issue was brought to the center because of what happened in Orlando,” said Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat from Greensboro who recently moved and may soon represent all of Mecklenburg County if re-elected in November. “People were specifically targeted ‑ it was a hate crime.”

The June 12 attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub has been billed an act of terror due to the shooter being reportedly inspired by Islamic State propaganda. The violence also renewed political debate over proposals to require a background check for all firearm purchases and to bar suspected terrorists from buying weapons.

Some, including Adams, say the shooting – in which 49 people were killed – was not only a terror attack but also an intentional act of hostility toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It’s a reminder, Adams said, that LGBT people are still targets of discrimination and violence, and they don’t have the same legal protections afforded to others.

When Rep. John Lewis took the podium to initiate the Democrats’ June 22 sit-in, he was wearing a rainbow ribbon on his suit jacket – a symbol often associated with LGBT activism.

For black elected officials, especially, some advocates say it’s an area where views have shifted in recent years. Still, there are some black leaders in North Carolina who don’t share Adams’ views on the issue and who fiercely support a state law – House Bill 2, most-well-known for its transgender bathroom provision – which LGBT activists denounce as discriminatory.

HB2 is a statewide law that prevents cities and counties from including sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. The law was passed in response to a city of Charlotte ordinance aimed at including LGBT people in a local non-discrimination law. Among other things, HB2 mandates that restrooms and locker rooms in publicly-owned spaces, such as schools and government buildings, may only be used according to a person's biological sex – men's or women's.

The law has spawned a legal fight and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said it violates federal civil rights law.

Clarence Henderson, a High Point, N.C., resident and chairman of the state’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission, has accused Lynch – who is also a North Carolina native and who is also black – of “political pandering” to African-Americans with HB2. Henderson is famous for participating in a Civil Rights Movement lunch counter sit-in in 1960 in Greensboro to protest racial segregation.

He says he views sexuality as a lifestyle choice and behavior and not an arena for civil rights. He’s pushed back on those who point out overlap between discrimination against LGBT people and the long history of abuse, segregation and discrimination against black people.

Henderson also takes issue with the gun control sit-in, saying in an interview this week that Democrats are “misguided” in attempts to restrict gun rights.

Historically and today, support for LGBT political issues – such as legal recognition of same-sex marriages – has been lower in the black community than among left-leaning whites, said David Stacy, a Human Rights Campaign lobbyist and longtime policy adviser for Democrats on LGBT topics in Washington, D.C. Much of the difference, even among otherwise like-minded Democrats, he said, is rooted in the influence of religion on black voters and lawmakers.

Generally, recent public opinion polling shows Americans have migrated toward broader acceptance of same-sex marriage, especially among young adults. A 2016 Pew Research Center report published in May shows support has grown from about 35 percent among adults surveyed in 2001 to about 55 percent this year.

The data suggests white people have changed their views in recent years more than black people. According to Pew research, roughly one-third of black and white people supported same-sex marriage in 2001. Now, support among the black community is around 42 percent and around 57 percent among whites.

Still, many black leaders were early supporters for workplace protections to ensure employers can’t fire LGBT workers simply because of their sexual or gender identity, Stacy said. Those non-discrimination employment protections haven’t been codified in federal law for LGBT workers, but authorities such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have found such practices to be illegal and some states have laws prohibiting such discrimination.

70% of Americans polled support legal protections for LGBT people, a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute shows

Public polling data suggests strong support for non-discrimination laws to protect LGBT people at work, in public accommodations and in housing, such as rental and lending decisions. A 2015 study by the Public Religion Research Institution showed almost equal support for non-discrimination actions among religious white and black respondents. Generally, seven out of 10 Americans support such protections for LGBT people.

Increasingly, Stacy said, LGBT advocates see more vocal, public support for equality from black and Latino lawmakers – groups that can personally understand the damaging effects of discrimination and stigmatization.

The highly-publicized occupation of the House floor by Democrats to talk about gun violence also happened to be one of the most prominent shows of support so far for LGBT people in the political arena, says Roddy Flynn, executive director of the congressional LGBT Caucus. The sit-in effort was largely organized and operated by black Democrats, including civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and North Carolina’s Rep. G.K. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Orlando has had a really deep and tremendous impact on the LGBT community around the country ... And, Congress reflected that.

David Stacy, LGBT lobbyist/activist

In the days following the Orlando attack, Flynn’s group handed out rainbow lapel ribbons – a symbol often associated with LGBT activism. Although Democrats on the whole have been more supportive of LGBT equality, he said, at least a dozen Republican members of Congress accepted and wore the rainbow ribbons. Those Republicans included Reps. Charlie Dent, of Pennsylvania, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Florida, who was born in Cuba and became the first Latina woman elected to Congress in 1989.

Lawmakers call for minority partnerships

North Carolina Reps. Adams, Butterfield and David Price all said in recent interviews they observed both symbolic and overt representations of LGBT advocacy during the gun sit-in.

Price, who is white, called it “a very positive thing” and said the Orlando shooting has been a “tipping point” for many to speak up for both changes to gun laws and more acceptance of LGBT people.

Among black lawmakers and their constituents, Adams said, she sees less reluctance than before to stay on the sidelines of the LGBT equality fight.

“Many years ago, it was kind of taboo. … I just think that we have evolved into a new place today,” she said.

Lewis’ outspoken attitude for LGBT equality has made a difference, according to the three Democrats from North Carolina.

June is National LGBT Pride Month and the day of the sit-in came near the one-year anniversary of several landmark Supreme Court decisions in favor of LGBT equality.

When Lewis took the podium to initiate the Democrats’ June 22 sit-in, he was wearing a rainbow ribbon on his suit jacket.

Such an image “makes a huge difference,” Stacy said – especially for young black people watching the sit-in. “It’s tremendously important to see leadership from people who are like you.”

Black leaders at the helm of the gun sit-in gave an opportunity for a potentially new audience to consider LGBT equality gaps, Butterfield said.

On the grounds surrounding the Capitol during the sit-in, LGBT advocates made up a large percentage of those who gathered to support the Democratic lawmakers inside. One of the nation’s largest LGBT activist groups – the Human Rights Campaign – has mobilized its supporters in recent weeks by taking an unprecedented step to call for new gun control laws.

The Human Rights Campaign’s mission for LGBT equality has some overlap with groups still fighting for racial equality, Butterfield and Adams say. They hope the coordination and unity shown during the sit-in is a sign of more partnership among the Democratic Party’s minority groups.

We’re going to stand with the LGBT community.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., chairman of congressional Black Caucus

Those resistant to change, Adams said, rely on a “divide and conquer” approach that will be effective as long as advocacy groups that are working on similar but separate causes keep their distance. She likened the need for more coordination on LGBT issues to the type of coalition she helped build in the North Carolina legislature when it passed a minimum wage increase in 2006. Then, Adams said, it was critical to band together various groups affected by low minimum wage, including women and racial minorities.

In North Carolina, both Butterfield and Adams say such a coordinated response with non-LGBT-specific groups will be needed if efforts to repeal HB2 are to be successful. When HB2 passed in March by a Republican majority of N.C. lawmakers, 11 Democrats broke away from their party and voted for it. Of those 11, six are black House members. In the state Senate, Democrats staged a walkout in protest of the legislation.

Stacy and Flynn say their Washington groups are already building bridges with other organizations focused on race, religion, and socioeconomic equality.

The Congressional Black Caucus has plans to continue its push for better gun control laws, Butterfield said. “And, we’re going to stand with the LGBT community.”

The violence inside Pulse nightclub – which was hosting a special Latino LGBT event – was born of an “un-American” kind of intolerance and hate, he said. Groups working together to combat such incidents, Butterfield said, recognize that “discrimination is discrimination” – regardless of race or sexual orientation – “and, it’s abhorrent.”

It’s no coincidence, Stacy said, that LGBT symbols and pride were visible during the sit-in. June is National LGBT Pride Month and the day of the sit-in came near the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision that the Constitution requires recognition of same-sex marriage.

“Orlando has had a really deep and tremendous impact on the LGBT community around the country,” Stacy said. “It all sort of fell together to be a formative moment ... And, Congress reflected that.”

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews