Legal risks. Lack of understanding. Existing protections. Those were all excuses that members of the Holly Springs Town Council gave last week as they stalled signing onto Wake County’s nondiscrimination ordinance (NDO), which would defend LGBTQ people from bigotry in the workplace, retail stores, and elsewhere.

The real reason for the town council’s inaction, however, is simple: it’s homophobia, says Donna Friend, a six-year Holly Springs resident who lives with her wife, Linda. The two have been married for nine years and partners for 41 years.

“[The town council’s discussion] was all based on homophobia. There’s no question about it. It wasn’t really about any legitimate [concern],” Friend says. “I don’t understand how our town council swears an oath to protect all its citizens, and yet marginalized people, they don’t want to protect. What happens in the nail salon if someone who’s trans wants to come in and have their nails done and they don’t want to let them in?”

Friend was one of about 40 people who showed up outside the Holly Springs Law Enforcement Center on Tuesday as council members inside discussed whether to adopt the NDO, which not only protects LGBTQ people but also outlaws discrimination based on race, ethnicity, hair, creed, sex, pregnancy, marital status, veteran status, age, and disability.

The crowd carried rainbow flags and colorful signs urging the council to “say yes to the NDO” and “respect my existence or expect my resistance.”

Chuck Tryon, another one of the protesters, says he and others wanted to make their voices heard during the town council workshop, where there were no public comments.

“The town is still proving resistant to supporting a nondiscrimination ordinance and it really makes no sense,” Tryon says. “I was extremely heartened to see so many people out supporting the rally …. I think there are a lot of people in town who recognize the stakes of this.”

Pride Month protest

Holly Springs residents started becoming concerned with the town council’s attitude toward the LGBTQ community earlier this month, when the council refused to pass a proclamation recognizing Pride Month, Tryon says.

“It’s really hurtful to see that expression of disrespect, coupled with other attempts to either curtail LGBTQ rights or to use fear of LGBTQ people as a kind of political prop,” Tryon says. “It bothers me a great deal to see these attacks taking place.”

Tryon, Friend, and others showed up to comment in favor of the proclamation earlier this month, standing 24 strong against one naysayer, resident Steve Schneider, who compared gay and trans people to “serial killers and pedophiles.”

“Future generations suffer if we deny the reality of two genders or that men cannot become pregnant or that homosexual marriage is not marriage at all,” Schneider said at the council meeting. “Being true to who you are means accepting the way that God made you. God does not make gay people or trans the same way he does not make serial killers or pedophiles.”

Eighteen people submitted written comments in favor of the Pride Month proclamation and NDO, while only three opposed. This response came in spite of councilwoman Kristi Bennett putting out a call on Facebook for people to show up in protest of the Pride Month proclamation.

“The pride proclamation is significant because even if it’s just ‘a public statement,’ it tells members of the town that they are affirmed and that they’re welcome in the community,” Tryon says, adding that just one affirming space for LGBTQ youth can reduce the risk of suicide and mental health challenges.

“There are many parents who don’t accept their LGBTQ children. Having that space for someone and ensuring that they know that they’re protected, I think, would make a world of difference.”

The nondiscrimination ordinance

The town council’s discussion of the NDO on Tuesday had a continuous theme—that an ordinance protecting LGBTQ people and people of color was “not right” for Holly Springs and its 40,000 residents.

The NDO—which has been adopted by Wake County and 19 municipalities in North Carolina, including Raleigh, Apex, and Durham—allows people who feel they’ve been discriminated against to file a complaint, which leads to an out-of-court mediation. If the mediation is unsuccessful, individuals can then file a civil lawsuit to obtain an injunction against the business or organization in question.

If Holly Springs adopted the NDO, Wake County would be responsible for responding to complaints and would cover the costs of enforcement for the first 18 months. Despite the success of Wake County’s ordinance, however, council members remain unwilling to adopt it, with some suggesting the town attorney rewrite the NDO more narrowly for Holly Springs.

Mayor Sean Mayefskie, mayor pro tem Daniel Berry, Kristi Bennett, Timothy Forrest, and Shaun McGrath all took positions against the ordinance Tuesday, citing legal concerns and worries about enforcement and questioning whether the ordinance was even needed.

The sole voice in favor of the NDO was council member Aaron Wolff, who, visibly frustrated, asked his colleagues to specify what problems they had with the existing NDO and what changes they would request for a Holly Springs–specific ordinance.

“The workshop on Tuesday, if it did nothing else, illustrated beyond a reasonable doubt that there are massive, gaping holes in antidiscrimination law that affect the residents of Holly Springs,” Wolff says. “The NDO that Wake County put together covers all of those gaps. Why would we not want to fill gaps that allow people in our community to be discriminated against?”

In the past month, community members have made it clear that discrimination is still a problem in Holly Springs, Wolff says, citing a recent conversation with a transgender resident.

“He does not feel safe being his true, authentic self in Holly Springs,” Wolff says. “That’s a problem. To sit there and say, ‘Holly Springs is fine the way it is … there’s nothing to be fixed,’ is just to bury your head in the sand and say the lived experiences of the countless residents who have reached out to us don’t matter.”

“We could make a real impact to law in Holly Springs that [makes a difference for our residents] and at the same time affirm their existence in our town and their importance to our community,” Wolff continued. “And we are refusing to do both.”

Wolff says the exact reasoning for council members’ opposition to the NDO is a mystery to him, given the demonstrated success of Wake County’s ordinance and the multiple months council members have had to seek answers to their questions. But even after the lack of progress during Tuesday’s workshop, Wolff has continued talking to council members, imploring them to take action.

“I’ve said privately to my colleagues, ‘Just because you guys push this aside does not mean it’s going to go away,’” Wolff says. “We’re going to continue to have pressure on us, not just from private residents but also from our business community.”

“If we can come together and find a solution, then we can move on. Unfortunately, out of the five of us, I seem to be the only one who’s really interested in finding a solution in any reasonable time,” Wolff says. “It’s immensely frustrating, it feels like a no-brainer to me. I feel like the arguments that were made and the answers that were received made it a pretty easy, obvious choice to approve this, but they still won’t.”

Mayefskie, who was elected to his first term as mayor in 2021, may have been swayed in part by businessman Robert Luddy, who happens to be his top individual campaign donor. Luddy, the founder of Thales Academy private schools and Franklin Academy charter school, is a conservative activist who gave $5,000 to Mayefskie’s campaign.

Luddy has also been crystal clear about his feelings toward LGBTQ people, defending Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and including policies in his private schools that prohibit students from “promotion, affirmation, or discussion” of LGBTQ people or issues.

Christine Kelly, a former Holly Springs Town Council member, now candidate for NC House District 37, seemed equally frustrated with the council’s stonewalling during a phone conversation last week. Kelly, who challenged Mayefskie in the 2021 election for mayor, has been critical of the current council.

Like Wolff, Kelly pushed for the NDO while she was still on town council and met resistance. Ultimately, the council decided to revisit the NDO after Wake County had enacted it and they were able to gather more information, she says.

“Now, they’ve pushed it under the rug and [Wolff] is the only one talking about it,” Kelly says. “What do we know that we didn’t know then? We know now that the NDO is going well and [Wake County] is going to manage the cost …. There’s no downside for the town. It’s more stall tactics.”

The political climate

Holly Springs is one of several more conservative communities in Wake County that is moving backward on LGBTQ rights. Many activists are seeing backlash against previous victories this year, as local officials hesitate to pass LGBTQ protections and state legislators moved forward with House Bill 755, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Overall, the political climate is frightening for people like Friend and her wife, Linda. The couple are transplants from New York, and while they originally felt comfortable moving to liberal Wake County, they’re now beginning to wonder what challenges may lie ahead.

“We’re really worried about this midterm election and where we’re going to be at the end of it,” Friend says. “I see a rollback of a lot of things that everybody enjoys as their civil liberties being taken away. If they rescind the same-sex marriage act, what do we do now? It wasn’t that long ago that if I was in the hospital and went into intensive care, Linda would not have been able to visit me because she’s not [recognized as] a family member.”

For that reason, Friend will continue fighting for her own rights and the rights of other LGBTQ people, she says.

“I’m not backing away from this one,” Friend says. “We’re going to do the best we can to make sure that some sort of ordinance gets passed. [And] if it turns out [the ordinance] is all about the groups that are already protected and they’re going to kick the ones who are marginalized to the street, then we’ll really know what this town is about.”

Election Day is November 8. The next round of elections for the Holly Springs Town Council is in 2023, when McGrath and Wolff will be up for reelection. The remaining members—Mayefskie, Berry, Bennett, and Forrest—will not face elections until 2025. 

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