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Equality and justice for all: Judge John Arrowood is a North Carolina trailblazer

North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge John Arrowood was first appointed to the bench in 2007. He lost subsequent races but was re-appointed in 2017, and in November he was elected to a full term on the bench, becoming the first openly LGBTQ person in North Carolina’s history voted to statewide office.

Arrowood recently sat down with Lawyers Weekly reporter Bill Cresenzo in his chambers to discuss his experiences being an openly gay attorney and appellate judge. The following is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is it like being a pioneer in North Carolina?

There hasn’t been another openly LGBTQ person win a statewide election in North Carolina or in the south. I am happy that it will allow young lawyers to feel confident that they can bring their entire self to their work without worrying that it will inhibit their ability to pursue the dreams that they might have in the public sector.

How has the legal profession evolved since you began practicing?

In the 1980s I didn’t know any gay lawyers practicing. When I came out to my firm in 1995, I didn’t know of any other gay equity partner in any major firm in the city of Charlotte at that time. At the time, [many] gay lawyers were practicing in the areas that were related to the gay community. I never practiced in that area.

Arrowood

Arrowood

In the major cities in particular there are opportunities for LGBTQ lawyers to practice in whatever setting they want. And in fact many firms are seeking diversity. It is much easier now for LGBTQ lawyers to be accepted in practices, especially in the urban areas. I haven’t practiced as an openly gay person in rural areas, so I don’t know what that’s like.  

Did you face discrimination when you came out to your colleagues?

I don’t believe so. I was in a firm known as being liberal at the time, and the comment from one of the partners was, “This is different, but we will deal with it.”

What led you to come out?

In 1994, I had sought a seat on the Court of Appeals because there was a vacancy. I was one of three finalists that Gov. [Jim] Hunt interviewed, including Sydnor Thompson. When Gov. Hunt told me he wasn’t going to appoint me, it was something like, “You are young, and this is the Sydnor’s last shot.” By that time, I had started to be active in the gay community and active in the fight against AIDS, but I was not “out-out.” I worried that someone would out me. I wanted to make that decision myself. I made the decision that I was going to live my life openly and honestly.

Was there any negative reaction when you were first appointed to the Court of Appeals?

The day I was sworn in in 2007, the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer ran a story that said, “Gay appellate judge quietly makes history.” I was certainly happy for that to be out. It therefore took away any potential that there could be a whisper campaign: “Well, you know, he’s gay.” At the time, I had been the treasurer of the Equality NC PAC. I had been an openly gay LGBTQ delegate to three Democratic conventions, so it wasn’t a secret. The NC Family Policy Council made the comment that we can’t say that he isn’t qualified, but this is certainly reason we must have the marriage amendment in North Carolina, or something to that effect.

When I ran in 2008, I understand there was somewhat of a campaign in the churches, but I don’t know anything about it, and it had nothing to do with my opponent at all. When I was running in a 19-person race in 2014, there was a news conference at the General Assembly in the press room where a minister from Fayetteville made the comment that he understood there was an openly homosexual candidate, and I shouldn’t even be allowed to run because I shouldn’t be allowed to judge him. In 2018 I led the ticket. I was the leading vote-getter in the state, and the leading Democratic vote-getter in the statewide races in 98 of the 100 counties.

What advice would you have for gay candidates running for office?

I am currently reading Andrew Reynolds’ book, “The Children of Harvey Milk,” which talks about the trailblazers, the folks who have won races all around the world, and how that opens doors. So I do think that people running as out candidates and then winning as out candidates lets other folks know that it is something that can be done.

For several years, I was on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute, now known as the LGBTQ Victory Institute. Its mission is to train openly LGBTQ folks on how to run for public office and to be a resource for openly LGBTQ officeholders on how to be professional servants for their constituents. The training that Victory does is to help people acknowledge their sexuality, orientation, and gender identity as part of their authentic self, but to not make their campaign about that. Make the campaign about why you are the best candidate for the job based upon everything else you bring to this campaign. For folks who are out there who are thinking about running, I certainly would recommend they do training on how to run.

How important is diversity in the judiciary?

I think that our court system works best and garners the most respect when the folks who are appearing before the court see people like them sitting on the bench. Diversity in gender and race and orientation, all of those things are critically important for the court system to work well and for people to respect it.

What are your interests off the bench?

I have had a wide variety of civic interests in North Carolina. I have served on the NC State Banking Commission and been a director for of the North Carolina Railroad and the North Carolina Arts Council. I like Carolina basketball. I have football tickets, but I like basketball better, particularly in the last several years. I am interested in the arts, and I have been very active in my church at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. I served on the vestry and before I was appointed to the bench I was the pro bono lawyer for the congregation, and I serve on the board of the choir school at St. Peter’s.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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