Enforcing local nondiscrimination ordinances has so far prompted a lot less public discussion than did their adoption in April 2021.
There was heated debate before the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the county’s ordinance, with more than 30 people speaking on the issue during one board meeting alone. (There was less controversy before Asheville City Council voted in a nearly identical ordinance a week later after hearing mostly, but not exclusively, supportive comments from the public.)
In comparison, the number of complaints filed under those ordinances with city and county governments has yet to top 25, and it appears that no one has been found in violation of the rules so far. According to public records obtained by Xpress, Asheville had received five complaints as of January, and Buncombe County had gotten 17 as of early March.
The city and county ordinances prohibit discrimination in employment, businesses and institutions open to the public based on 15 factors, including age, race, sexual orientation, disability and gender identification. They took effect July 1.
Some people involved in last year’s debate say it is difficult to gauge what the figures mean. There is some disagreement about the broader impact of the ordinances; supporters say they help set a norm that local communities oppose discrimination, while an opponent claims the amount of discrimination that occurs was exaggerated to begin with.
Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of Asheville-based LGBTQ rights advocacy organization Campaign for Southern Equality, was one of the main backers of the county ordinance. She says the number of complaints coming to the county is not out of line from those in other communities with similar rules, “and what it shows is that people are using the resource.”
City Council member Antanette Mosley says many people who feel they have been discriminated against just move on instead of filing a complaint.
As a Black woman, Mosley says, she still experiences incidents in which she is treated differently because of her race. “I don’t think it’s unusual for people of color in particular to experience discriminatory action,” she says.
“Folks don’t necessarily complain about it every time,” she adds. “At some point, it becomes part of your day. And you pick your battles, and in order to be successful, you forge ahead.”
Fears not realized?
Much of the discussion around the adoption of the ordinances concerned protections they would extend to gays, lesbians, transgender people and others in the LGBTQ community. Kristie Sluder, a social worker from Weaverville who spoke against the county ordinance before commissioners adopted it, now says the number of complaints casts doubt on claims of frequent discrimination.
“I have never run into someone with a violent disposition or a hate-filled disposition toward someone who’s LGBTQ,” says Sluder of her local experiences. Mountain people, she continues, “are not haters. They’re a live-and-let-live people.”
(Both Sluder and Beach-Ferrara are running for the U.S. House District 11 seat representing most of Western North Carolina, Sluder in the Republican primary and Beach-Ferrara in the Democratic.)
Opponents argued a year ago that the nondiscrimation rules would be a burden on businesses and would create disruptions when, for instance, a transgender person used a public restroom not designated for the gender of that person’s birth. Sluder concedes she hasn’t heard of any such incidents locally since the ordinance went into effect and that “it hasn’t affected anything that I come into contact with in my daily life.”
The Rev. Micheal Woods, executive director of Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, also asked county commissioners last year not to adopt the ordinance. The mission uses the gender stated on clients’ state-issued identification to assign homeless shelter beds to men and women, and Woods feared that practice could run afoul of the ordinance’s protections for transgender people. The shelter’s policy is intended to protect clients from abusive partners or others who might harm them, not to discriminate against anyone, he says.
WCRM’s policy remains, and adoption of the ordinances “hasn’t affected us,” Woods now says. He notes that two men presented themselves as females and sought admission to the women’s dorm over the past year because they were searching for women they thought were staying there, but they were turned away. That also happened several times before the ordinances were adopted, he says.
He remains a critic of the ordinances, saying state and federal laws already ban many types of discrimination. “I’m not sure it was necessary legislation, other than somebody being able to champion something to advance themselves politically,” he says.
Blue Ridge Pride, an Asheville-based LGBTQ support and advocacy group, does not investigate reports of discrimination, but Executive Director Tina White says she still hears plenty. She recounts calls from “employees who get harassment from their colleagues,” parents and students unhappy with issues at schools and a “trans waitress who regularly gets harassed by customers.”
She says some businesses may have changed practices since the ordinances were adopted and having them on the books is a big step forward. White, a transgender woman, says that when she lived in New York City a few years ago, she worried whether the police “would be on my side” if she were mugged.
“When you hear the community make a positive affirmation that says … ‘Our standards of decency apply to you’ … it’s a very important exercise,” she says.
Beach-Ferrara says discrimination against LGBTQ people hasn’t disappeared: “We know that because LGBTQ members of the community have experience with it.” A national poll for CBS News last year found that 68% of U.S. residents feel LGBT people face either “some” or “a lot” of discrimination.
What complaints say
While LGBTQ issues dominated debate over the nondiscrimination ordinances in early 2021, the types of discrimination alleged in complaints since the rules went into effect in July have been broader. The most common categories have been race, disability, age and gender identity.
County government gave Xpress a summary of the 17 complaints it received but provided detailed documents for only six, saying those were the only documents actually filed after a complainant contacted the county. The city’s response was more complete, but both governments redacted complainants’ contact information.
One woman complained to the county that a bus driver had not picked her up at a stop because she was white. The county said it found no violation. Another complaint charged in July that the county Board of Education requiring masks was discriminatory; the county said it had no jurisdiction.
Buncombe’s summary says eight complaints were dismissed because the complainants did not respond to requests for more information. The county had no jurisdiction in six cases, two cases are still under investigation, and the county found no violation in one. One of the complaints to city government involved conduct that occurred before the ordinance went into effect, one pertained to a private club exempt from the ordinance, and one was against an institution outside the city. Two others alleging racial discrimination in accommodation were still under investigation as of late January.
One of the county’s cases hit close to home. Peyton O’Conner, then Buncombe’s head of recreation services, says another county employee sexually harassed her after she announced in September 2020 she was transitioning from male to female. That included a request by the employee to see O’Conner’s breasts after the transition, she says.
O’Conner says she complained to county management in January 2021 but that it took six or seven months to resolve the situation. The alleged harasser resigned, although not before threatening to reveal information about O’Conner unless she dropped the complaint and helped that person get a promotion.
The county then gave O’Conner a written warning stemming from a minor transgression of county rules that was 2 years old, she says, based on information that came to light during the investigation of her sexual harassment complaint.
O’Conner, a 14-year county employee and member of the Asheville City Board of Education, says she tired of the “toxic work environment” and resigned effective Dec. 1. “I really started to sense that how I was viewed in the workplace wasn’t equal to my peers,” she says.
She filed a complaint in November claiming the county had violated its own nondiscrimination ordinance, charging that Buncombe’s investigation was poorly done and the county had retaliated against her. In a Feb. 10 letter O’Conner provided, the county responded that she had failed to provide evidence of retaliation and that how an organization deals with allegations of sexual harassment falls outside the scope of the ordinance.
Beach-Ferrara said she agreed with O’Conner that county workers need more training on LGBT issues, another issue O’Conner had complained about, but said she could not discuss the case further. County spokesperson Lillian Govus said Buncombe officials are not able to respond to individual personnel issues and that state law limits the release of information about local government employees.
Govus did say that the county is “striving to go beyond platitudes and authentically create more inclusive environments. … We wholeheartedly believe equity is at the core of what we do.”
Not a cure-all
Asheville and Buncombe County are among 16 local governments in North Carolina that have adopted nondiscrimination ordinances since a prohibition on such local rules expired in December 2020, says Kendra Johnson, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality North Carolina. The state General Assembly had banned nondiscrimination rules in 2016 when it passed HB2, controversial legislation that said state and local government must segregate restroom facilities according to the gender shown on people’s birth certificates. A compromise adopted in 2017 repealed most of HB2’s key provisions and set a December 2020 sunset on the local rules ban.
Asheville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, which handles complaints under the city’s ordinance, had no permanent employees when the ordinance took effect. Its first director, Kimberlee Archie, had left in August 2020, saying she hadn’t been supported by top city officials.
Brenda Mills, who took over Archie’s job in late July, says the office is now fully staffed at four employees and is in the early stages of efforts to raise awareness of the city ordinance. The office’s duties include staffing a city commission on racial justice reparations and providing training and other support to make city government more equitable.
Rachel Edens, Buncombe County’s first chief equity and human rights officer, began work in November. Assistant County Manager Dakesha “DK” Wesley had investigated nondiscrimination ordinance complaints before Edens began work, and the two now share that responsibility, Govus said.
Greensboro has had only a few inquiries about its nondiscrimination ordinance since its City Council voted in January 2021 to reactivate enforcement of an ordinance extending protections to LGBTQ people, says Allen Hunt, primary complaint officer in the city’s Human Rights Office. None of the inquiries resulted in formal complaints, he says. Greensboro had included LGBTQ people in its nondiscrimination ordinance in 2015, but HB2 forced it to suspend enforcement.
Johnson says the relatively few verifiable complaints in North Carolina municipalities “is a positive thing” and probably reflect a long-term shift toward more tolerance of LGBTQ people — as well as the reluctance of some people who are discriminated against to bring a complaint. People harmed by discrimination often worry that pushing back will damage relationships with family, friends, fellow churchgoers and others, she says. She also believes the number of local complaints is not unusual.
But anyone who thinks prejudice against LGBTQ people has disappeared, Johnson continues, should reflect on the dozens of bills being considered in state legislatures around the country that LGBTQ people consider hostile to them. “Discrimination is rampant,” she says, and Asheville and Buncombe County are not immune. “Passing an ordinance does not cure homophobia and transphobia.”