LGBT candidates look to build on last year’s successes

Waynesville Town Council Member Anthony Sutton speaks at a political event in Asheville. Cory Vaillancourt photo Waynesville Town Council Member Anthony Sutton speaks at a political event in Asheville. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Hoping to build on the momentum of a successful off-year election cycle, even amid violent threats, members of Western North Carolina’s LGBTQ+ community are wary of what might happen in the General Election and are calling for the codification of rights already enjoyed by other Americans. 

“Donald Trump wants to pit us against one another, but when you sit down and have a conversation without extremist rhetoric, you realize that people are people,” said Anthony Sutton, a member of the Waynesville Town Council, at an event in Asheville on June 7. “Words have weight, and Trump has demonstrated that he doesn’t care if his words hurt people.”

Last November, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund told The Smoky Mountain News that nationwide, LGBTQ+ candidates had their most successful off-year election in history. More than 500 ran, more than 300 were on official ballots, more than 160 were endorsed by the Victory Fund and more than 150 won.

Sutton was one of them, earning a second term as Waynesville’s first openly gay member of Council. His 2023 campaign was marred by violent anti-LGBTQ+ threats directed both towards him and towards the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, but the threats thus far seem to have had the opposite of the intended effect — at least in Waynesville.

Allegations of illegal activity by a transgender person at the Waynesville Recreation Center last July prompted graphic anti-LGBTQ+ social media posts by some, but after dual investigations conducted by the town and the police found no evidence of a crime, the Town of Waynesville passed a resolution of support for the LGBTQ+ community and pledged to review official policies and materials for possible inadvertent discriminatory language.

Last month, Council approved a permit for the town’s first Pride Month celebration, to be held June 29 in Frog Level, despite minor opposition. At the meeting, a separate pride event was approved for October.

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But it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for WNC’s growing LGBTQ+ community. In March, Sylva Pride was denied a permit for its fourth annual Pride parade by a 4-1 vote of the Town Board — despite support from the downtown business community. Although the Board subsequently proclaimed June as Pride Month and a Pride festival will still take place in September at Bridge Park, Pride supporters have vowed to march anyway.

The tense, tenuous state of LGBTQ+ visibility in the region won’t get any better if Republicans nab top offices in this fall’s General Election, according to Amy Upham, executive director of Blue Ridge Pride.

“We see this election as a watershed moment for the LGBTQ+ community,” Upham said. “If hate wins again, I cannot even fathom our world four years from now.”

Upham stressed that she was speaking only for herself when she singled out Republicans Trump, who is a convicted felon, and North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who is running for governor, as potentially problematic for LGBTQ+ people across the state and across the country.

“In appointing three anti-choice judges to the Supreme Court, Trump had a heavy hand in overturning Roe v. Wade. This has opened the door to increased MAGA efforts to limit access to [in vitro fertilization], which would have a devastating impact on members of our community who hope to have children,” Upham said. “I know — I’m the mother to a child from embryo adoption.”

As recently as May, Robinson expressed support for the state’s so-called “bathroom bill,” passed by the General Assembly in 2016 but subsequently repealed after backlash that included the loss of the NBA All-Star game and nearly $4 billion in investment, according to the Associated Press.

Robinson told The Smoky Mountain News in April that as governor, “we’re going to protect your constitutional rights and protect your absolute right to declare yourself whoever you are, however you are, whether that be your religious preference or your sexual preference,” and that “no law will be passed in this state that will stand in the way of that, and we will protect people’s constitutional rights.”

Despite Robinson’s assurances, LGBTQ+ advocates are not only concerned about laws that could be passed, they’re also concerned about laws that haven’t been passed — like the Equality Act, which Sutton said would codify “critical anti-discrimination protections” for LGBTQ+ people relating to credit, education, employment and housing policy.

“Right now, in North Carolina you could be fired from your job for being a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” Sutton said.

The only way to advance these initiatives is to elect more LGBTQ+ people, and their allies, to positions of power in local, state and federal offices — as happened in 2023.

“In 2024,” Sutton said of the upcoming election, “it is clear what’s at stake — our relationships, our families and the vibrant LGBTQ+ communities that have blossomed in places like Waynesville and Asheville.”

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