By Michael F. Roessler
Nothing disappoints like the cowardice of fair-weather friends.
In 2021, the North Carolina Bar Association touted its queer-friendly bona fides when it formed the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Committee, which pledged to work “to secure full equality for members of the LGBTQ+ community in the NCBA, the legal profession, and society” and “to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
With LGBTQ+ Americans under political and cultural assault, the NCBA’s public commitment to equality offered a promise that we would be supported by well-positioned companions of goodwill and stout heart.
It was a false promise.
In addition to its other work, SOGI provides queer attorneys with opportunities to socialize. One such event, a drag trivia night, was to be held on June 8 — until the association’s then-president, Clayton Morgan, unilaterally canceled it.
The job of the NCBA, Morgan said during a videoconference held to explain his decision, is “not to steer into contested politics or offer up political responses. … We, therefore, try to avoid jumping into legislative or political areas.” He added that the NCBA should avoid “delving into the politics of matters” or “taking positions.”
Instead of the drag event the NCBA sought to avoid, Morgan counseled SOGI to “have a forum discussion where you present both sides like we typically like to do. Both sides, a neutral moderator. Get the issues out there that way you’re not perceived as trying to advance just your agenda on the world.”
How did an absolute ethical imperative — “full equality” — get so quickly recast as “taking positions” in a “both sides” political argument?
The NCBA’s stand came after the Republican Party gained veto-proof supermajorities in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly. If the NCBA fully embraces its queer members now, “it’s likely our Bar Association-backed legislative agenda will be negatively affected,” Morgan said, “because political viewpoints will be inferred by the General Assembly.”
The bottom line: Morgan canceled the event so the Republican-controlled legislature won’t think the NCBA is getting too cozy with the queer community. We were expendable.
Privileged beneficiaries of the status quo tell us all the time who they really are, but we too often choose not to listen. They make negotiable commitments of convenience, not non-negotiable commitments of conviction: “Do the right thing, always” becomes “Do the right thing, when prudent or advisable or safe.” Ultimately, such people will be guided not by principle, but by the perspectives of those whom they most respect and fear: the holders of power.
In our desire to believe that the ambivalent are actually allies, we forget the lesson Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: Well-meaning moderates who serve as our society’s prominent pillars of respectability are unreliable allies because their instinct to placate the powerful is more developed than their instinct to help the vulnerable. They “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Even if, upon reflection, the NCBA’s cravenness was predictable, it still counts as an act of disheartening ethical failure given the political environment in which we find ourselves. Lawmakers in North Carolina and across the country seek to render us second-class citizens, especially targeting transgender people and drag shows in their broader anti-queer campaign. It is these people before whom Morgan chose to genuflect. He became their collaborator.
The LBGTQ+ community has been thrust into a political and cultural battle. It is a fight for justice and liberty and equality, for decency and dignity, for our full humanity. Neutrality is impossible. North Carolinians either must support the queer community by pushing back against homophobia or cast their lot with those who see us as a scourge. There is no middle ground on which the calculating can stand.
Sadly, the NCBA has made its choice.
The North Carolina Bar Association declined an opportunity to offer a rebuttal to this commentary.
Michael F. Roessler is a member of the bar in North Carolina and South Carolina. Practicing in Charlotte, he handles workers’ compensation cases and is a North Carolina board-certified specialist in workers’ compensation law.