Back when members of the LGBTQ community were called homosexuals in the press, were arrested outside gay bars and parks and charged with “crimes against nature,” when the AIDS crisis was just turning away from panic and anger, when the whole LGBTQ community was assumed to be pedophilic and deranged, a group of homosexuals in North Carolina decided to stand up and give a very public damn. 

Forty years later, Equality NC is the nation’s oldest statewide LGBTQ rights organization.

In its earliest days, it was called the North Carolina Human Rights Fund, and it provided legal assistance to people and for cases shunned by the ACLU. In the mid-eighties, the focus shifted to education about LGBTQ issues across the state. In 1990, another group of LGBTQ activists organized a political organization called the NC Pride PAC, which endorsed local and state politicians who agreed to be educated on the community’s issues and publicly support their needs. The groups joined together in the late nineties under the banner Equality NC.

Equality NC is larger, more active, and has more allies today than ever. The organization is also being run, for the first time, by a person of color. Executive director Kendra Johnson is leading Equality NC to be more inclusive to rural communities, to people of color, and to people with less access to wealth and education.

Ahead of this year’s Pride: Durham, NC festival—and before and after Equality NC’s fortieth anniversary gala, held earlier this month at The Cookery in Durham—the INDY spoke with founders of the North Carolina Human Rights Fund, NC Pride PAC, and two executive directors of Equality NC about the group’s history and work to improve the lives of the state’s LGBTQ residents, their families, and allies, through legal defense, politics, medical rights, medication access, and education—and what comes next. 

The interviews in this oral history have been edited for clarity and concision. 


John Boddie, co-founder of the North Carolina Human Rights Fund Inc. and retired lawyer

Kendra Johnson, executive director Equality NC, May 2018–present 

Mike Nelson, co-founder of Pride PAC, first openly gay mayor in North Carolina 

Ian Palmquist, former executive director, Equality NC 2003–11

Jesse White, co-founder of Pride PAC, first openly gay chairman of a federal agency 

Part 1: The NCHRF, 1979–91

Boddie: Most of the legal cases in the first five years were crime-against-nature cases. Usually men who were caught up in one of these busts that the police would have periodically. Several of them were arrested just outside [co-founder] Art Sperry’s bar. The police would not go inside the bar, but they would hang around outside and quote-unquote “get them to solicit,” which, of course, meant that the police were really doing the soliciting. The ACLU started taking up cases in the 1990s that they should have taken up in 1979.

[Co-founder] John Voorhees was the president of the Wake County chapter of the North Carolina chapter of the ACLU. At that time, the ACLU of North Carolina was in Greensboro of all places. But John was very upset. He thought the state ACLU was very homophobic and was pretty much fed up with them and wanted to have another organization which became the Human Rights Fund. 

An early success story

Boddie: To me, the most interesting case that we took was on behalf of White Rabbit Books. In 1981, John Neal founded White Rabbit Books and wanted to say in his Yellow Pages ad that it sold gay and lesbian books. Bell South said you can’t use the words “gay” or “lesbian” in the Yellow Pages. I filed a complaint with the North Carolina Utilities Commission, and shortly after they accepted jurisdiction of the case, Bell South changed their policy to allow people to buy advertising using the words “gay” or “lesbian.” Back before the internet, if you weren’t in the Yellow Pages, you might as well not exist. 

Repealing the crime against nature law

Boddie: In the early eighties, there was a proposal before the North Carolina General Assembly to have a comprehensive revision of the criminal code. One of the things in that proposed revision was to remove the crime against nature. On September 27, 1984, all of this blew up. On that day, two hundred or so screaming fundamentalists showed up at what was supposed to be a routine meeting that had always been very sedate. It had always been me and three or four other people in the audience. Suddenly, that day, it was this huge crowd of people thumping the Bible. The upshot of all this is that it created such controversy that the whole criminal code revision collapsed. All this work that everybody had done for five years or more just totally collapsed as a result of this brouhaha over the crime-against-nature law. Parts of it did get passed later, but this beautiful criminal code revision just collapsed, and we’re still stuck with all these old statutes that essentially haven’t been changed since the eighteenth century.

Early conflict with the lesbian community 

Boddie: Back in 1976, [at the Southeastern Conference for Lesbians and Gay Men] in Chapel Hill, there were a lot of lesbians there. I later learned that a lot of lesbians that were there were very put off by the sexual displays by the gay men. Gay men wearing chaps with their ass hanging out, out on the UNC campus. The women were not happy about that. For that and all kinds of other reasons, if a woman in 1979 wanted to work with a gay men’s group, as it would have been perceived, she would have been shunned by the lesbian community. It was very hard in that era, and that really didn’t change until the AIDS crisis when, by the mid-eighties, when all the gay men were dying, lesbians came around at that point. I will say that a lot of men were not exactly sympathetic toward women’s issues. 

Early political activity through the NCHRF 

Boddie: Art Sperry had a background in political advertising. In 1980, he came up with this whole ad campaign called Gay Vote ’80 and sent it out of the offices of the North Carolina Human Rights Fund to gay newspapers all over the United States for display, basically designed to get the politically inactive gay community involved in elections. 

The Jesse Helms-James Hunt election [for U.S. Senate] in 1984 was, personally, very devastating, I guess you would say. [Helms won.] It was almost like the election of Trump in 2016. It had the same impact on me where I felt like, what’s the point?

Part 2: NC Pride PAC, 1991–99

Mike Nelson: [The 1990 Harvey Gant-Jesse Helms election] really galvanized the community. [Helms won again.] After it was over, I sat down with some other folks and said, “Hey, we need to keep this energy going.” We didn’t have a statewide LGBTQ group in North Carolina, [there were] only a handful in the country at that point, and I started the conversation with folks about what to do and how we should organize to carry the energy forward. And that led to the creation of what we called the Pride PAC.

Endorsing candidates

Jesse White: We were gaining legitimacy pretty quickly, which was our goal. From there, we started surveying candidates. We came up with criteria for endorsements. They had to support the abolition of the crimes-against-nature law, and they had to support what we call a sensible AIDS policy. The big issue there was ensuring the anonymity of HIV testing because it was a huge stigma, and your confidentiality was not assured. It was not the most radical agenda, but it was really important stuff to the gay community that we worked on. 

It was pretty basic stuff, but it was in some ways revolutionary. North Carolina, even though back then it was more progressive than the rest of the South, is still Bible-Belt country. Homophobia was still rampant. To create an organization that was actually getting involved in the political system was something that had never happened before.

Educating politicians

Nelson: It was kinda hard to get elected officials to talk to us in the beginning. Even if they were open-minded, their constituents were so close-minded that the political risk was enormous. You were putting your political life at risk. People thought we were mentally deranged pedophiles. You name a stereotype, and it was commonly held, and it was believed by a very large portion of the North Carolina population. 

All of that sounds so easy now, looking back with thirty years’ perspective. But it was really hard starting those conversations and just getting in the door because people were just so uncomfortable with it. The gay community had been a whipping boy for the far right and in the Helms-Gant campaign. Even before that, six years earlier, when Governor Hunt ran against Jesse Helms [for U.S. Senate in 1984], gay issues were part of that campaign. There’s a lot of history of progressive elected officials being really afraid to touch the issue because it was politically so very difficult back then. 

The contributions over the last twenty-five, thirty years were really to start those conversations, because we really had to start somewhere. That takes a lot of hard work, and it was a lot of baby steps. 

White: A lot of what’s happening today, in which we’re being very successful, traces back to some of that early organizing, where we may not have been chalking successes in those early years, I think we were laying the groundwork for a lot of good successes in the future. 

Even though we might consider it a huge success if we had ten or twelve endorsees get elected, you still have the rest of those people sitting there to get past. It was and still is a tough battle.

Part 3: Through the Aughts, 1999–2011

Nelson: In 2002 or 2003, we finally had a really high-level member of the state senate who was prepared to introduce and use the strength of his position to advance an LGBT nondiscrimination bill. However, he didn’t want to include transgender because he didn’t get that—remember, this was like seventeen years ago, he just didn’t get it—so the one step forward was finally getting somebody to do the right thing, but he didn’t go as far as we wanted. It caused some pretty strong disagreements in Equality NC about what to do to handle that situation. He felt a little betrayed because we weren’t as appreciative of the work he was putting into it and the risk he was taking because he was from a very conservative eastern North Carolina district. [The bill didn’t pass, and North Carolina still does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people.]

Ian Palmquist: Back then, the two big issues we were working on the most were trying to pass a hate-crimes bill—which still has not happened—and trying to repeal the sodomy law. We really felt like, although the sodomy law was not enforced that frequently, it was really difficult to make the case on nondiscrimination when legislators in our opposition could basically say, “Well, you’re all felons, so of course it’s reasonable to discriminate against you.” [The U.S. Supreme Court overturned state sodomy bans in 2003, but North Carolina’s law is still on the books.]

We were really just trying to do basic education to try to get legislators to meet LGBT people. In those very earliest years, there were still legislators who would say things like, “I don’t have gay people in my district,” which sounds ridiculous now. 

One of the things that was really hard through a lot of my time [at Equality NC] was every week or two, even though we’re not a legal services organization, I’d get a call from somebody who had been fired or somebody who lost an apartment, and often had to be the person who told those folks that what happened to them was legal in North Carolina. 

The fight for marriage equality 

Palmquist: I remember actually when the decision came down in Massachusetts legalizing marriage there [in 2003]. I was at a meeting of all the Southern equality organizations, and we all had this moment of, “That’s totally amazing,” and then, like, “Oh, shit, we’re fucked in the South for the next ten years.” We had been working on incremental things. Equality NC, at that point, felt like we potentially had a path to nondiscrimination for state employees in the next year or two, and when marriage hit as an issue, we knew that suddenly we were going to be playing defense in this region for a long time. 

Ultimately, I think marriage was a really powerful issue that moved the public not just on marriage but on acceptance generally, but it created a really tough time in the South. We saw hate crimes go up, we saw just waves of these anti-LGBT constitutional amendments, many of which passed in that first year or two [across the South]. We were able to hold that back here [until 2012], but killing the amendment was as far as Democratic leadership [which controlled the General Assembly until 2011] was willing to go for us at that point. Once the terms had shifted to marriage, even something that in theory had overwhelming public support like nondiscrimination for state employees was off the table. 

There’s a narrative now that these white-led movement organizations really wanted to move marriage. At that time, I think most movement organizations were super nervous about bringing up marriage. It seemed kind of crazy to even think about trying to advance marriage when we didn’t have, and still don’t have, any employment protections at the federal level, for example. Employment protections, decriminalizing sodomy, some of those things were still really critical, particularly for more marginalized folks. But both because the level of energy from the community and the interest from the media, once marriage came along, it was impossible to get attention on these other issues. 

Part 4: Equality NC, Present and Future

When she became executive director—two years after HB 2 was passed and one year after its partial repeal—Kendra Johnson went on a listening tour to learn what the community needed from Equality NC

Kendra Johnson: One of the most resounding things that I heard was that we needed to be better partners to affinity groups. Also, people didn’t know what we did, so we needed to tell our story a little bit better. Folks wanted to know how to plug into the work. We needed to be a convener, we needed to be a better resource for the community, and we needed to lift up the voices of all folks in the LGBTQ community, moving away from just white and cis folks, to take on issues like immigration, reproductive justice, criminalization, domestic violence, and a whole host of other things, to work more intersectionally in general. 

My experience is that we have allies everywhere, and when people have the right information in their hands and the support to implement it, they will. They’ll stand up and they’ll make those changes. One of the single biggest factors in folks having more regard and respect for the LGBTQ community has been the greater visibility of the community. 

The future

Johnson: Pie-in-the-sky is us working for comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation in the state and in the nation.

We’re moving from a single-issue organization to a social justice organization. The reality is that LGBTQ people are not just white and cisgender. They are not just wealthy, and they are not just of a certain color, class, or creed. We’re part of every community. We would fail as an organization if we didn’t stand up for LGBTQ immigrants who we know are being stopped at the border and are many times being sent back to certain death. We would fail if we didn’t contemplate that trans and gender-nonconforming kids and black and brown kids are being pushed out of schools and onto the streets and into the criminal legal system.

If you’ve seen our messaging, it’s changed. It’s not just about main LGBTQ issues. It’s about immigrant rights. It’s about reproductive justice. It’s about mothers fighting for better gun laws. It’s about looking at how we work with criminal justice systems, because those things impact a part of our community. 

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