CHAPEL HILL – Local governments in Orange County have a legacy of making history with “firsts” for the LGBTQ community in North Carolina.
Lydia Lavelle was sworn-in as Carrboro’s 23rd mayor Tuesday evening, becoming the state’s first openly-lesbian mayor. She joins Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, who is openly gay as well.
“I’m really proud to be an elected official in Orange County where frankly it doesn’t matter that I’m gay,” Lavelle said. “In fact, I had someone when I was running for Mayor that said, ‘Oh, good. We’ll have another female mayor!’ They weren’t even concerned about my sexuality. They were more interested in me being a female.”
After taking the oath of office, Lavelle’s partner, Alicia Stemper, presented her with a purple T-shirt that said “I’m Openly Carrboro” on the back.
“It is certainly a statement again of our county’s ability to be progressive and to view everyone on equal footing, and to look at equal rights for all,” said Lavelle, who is an Assistant Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University.
Carrboro was the first municipality in North Carolina to elect an openly gay mayor, Mike Nelson, in 1995. Nelson was also North Carolina’s first openly-gay County Commissioner, serving for Orange County.
More than a decade later, Mark Kleinschmidt became Chapel Hill’s first openly gay Mayor in 2009, and is now serving his third term in office.
“As a community, we evaluate folks on par with each other,” Kleinschmidt said. “There isn’t a disqualifying element, at least not one you are born with.”
Broader than Orange County
Concerning state-wide legislation, elected officials in Orange County overwhelmingly opposed Amendment 1 in 2012, Lavelle explained, and as did the voters.
Of the 100 counties in North Carolina, Orange County was one of only eight counties to vote against the law that defined marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman.
Carrboro has also made strides as the first municipality in the state to grant domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples.
“I think even more than our openly-gay mayors is that we’ve always been known as, not just Carrboro, but Chapel Hill and Orange County in general, for being the first to maybe talk about some ideas that seem kind of far-out or seem like no one has heard about them. Then several years later, the rest of the state starts to examine them,” Lavelle said.
Though much has been done for LGBTQ rights within Orange County, Kleinschmidt said there is still work to be done on legislation in North Carolina. He cited examples such as the North Carolina Supreme Court ban of second-parent adoption rights for same-sex couples and that an employee’s sexuality can be grounds for firing in the State.
Both Lavelle and Kleinschmidt agreed that change begins at the grassroots level, and both said they will remain committed to that during their terms in office.