North Carolina, like the United States at large, has gone through an unprecedented change in the past decades when it comes to attitudes toward people who identify as LGBTQIA. But like the spread of acceptance in the United States, North Carolina has not been affected evenly.
In cities like Chapel Hill and Carrboro, openly gay and lesbian officials are elected to high office. And yet, state voters supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage with 61 percent of the vote.
Public officials like North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper are no longer supporting or enforcing laws that discriminate against the LGBTQIA community. And yet, gay-straight alliances in public high schools, even in places like Orange County, are still being blocked or shut down.
Just as attitudes across North Carolina vary from place to place when it comes to the LGBTQIA community, so do attitudes toward businesses that are LGBTQIA-run or LGBTQIA-friendly.
Sharon Collins is co-owner of Balloons and Tunes, a party store and specialty balloon provider in Carrboro. Collins is openly gay and runs Balloons and Tunes with her partner and said she had never faced any challenges as a business because of her sexual orientation.
“We have not found that our identity as lesbians has been an issue at all in our business. I’ve never once had a negative experience because of that,” Collins said. “We find that the thing that makes our business successful for as many years as we’ve been successful is that we have a product that people want, we offer service that is exceptional and people keep coming back.”
Collins said anti-LGBTQIA attitudes exist in North Carolina but attributed the lack of negativity regarding her sexual orientation to her store’s location.
“There’s always, to me, a small subgroup of people who are prejudiced, and in my opinion, closed-minded. There’s always going to be that vocal minority who gets a lot of attention,” she said. “But especially in the Triangle and Chapel Hill/ Carrboro area where I am, it’s a very inclusive community."
By contrast, there’s Replacements, Ltd., whose showroom and main headquarters is located in McLeansville, about 20 minutes west of Burlington. Replacements is the world’s largest provider of china and silverware and carries complete sets of various designs, allowing customers to “replace” a piece they may be missing.
Bob Page is CEO and founder of Replacements. Not only is Page openly gay, but he donated money to fight North Carolina’s Amendment One and used Replacement’s various electronic billboards to advertise anti-Amendment One ads.
“My partner and I have been together for nearly 40 years and we’ve adopted two sons. There are so many families like us in the state that deserve to be treated with respect under the law,” Page said.
Page’s open support made Replacements a singular voice among large corporations in North Carolina and the business got letters from customers saying how upset they were by the company’s position and that they would never buy from Replacements again. Some forms of protest got closer than just letters, like anti-gay graffiti on part of the company’s property.
“There was one woman who drove her truck to Replacements and had it parked to block the entrance,” he said. “No one was hurt and she was gone by the time the police came, but for about 30 minutes, no one could get in to the store.”
Businesses and history
Businesses run by openly LGBTQIA operators are relatively new in the United States. Mary Jo Festle, Maude Sharpe Powell professor of history at Elon University, said this didn’t really start until the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
“Before, there would be businesses in the West that would be on the down-low, but people in the area would know,” Festle said.
After Stonewall, there was a rise in bars, athletic teams, concert areas and especially bookstores that were run by openly LGBTQIA people. Those businesses relied on the LGBTQIA community as a consumer base and would try to provide services others could not.
“There would be bookstores that would have a tiny gay section in the back and then there would be bookstores where it would be obvious the minute you walk in that it’s catering to the LGBTQIA community,” Festle said. “Anyone in the neighborhood would know about it, but they’d also know who walks in and you’d need customers who had the nerve to be seen walking in.”
In this same vein, Collins said her openness about her identity has drawn business from other members of the LGBTQIA community.
“I think that on a small level, some people call on us because they know that we are gay and lesbian owned,” she said. “We do events for gay pride. And I think that there is a loyalty in the community so that, when given the alternative, you choose someone you want to support. And hopefully members of the LGBTQIA community choose us.”
For owners like Page, running a business where they are free to openly identify as LGBTQIA has other benefits.
“We have many wonderful employees who are openly-LGBTQIA and I want them to not feel uncomfortable while they’re here and feel like they can be themselves,” he said.
In the South, the growth of LGBTQIA-owned businesses is much smaller compared to places like New York City and San Fransisco. Festle said not only is the South generally more conservative as a result of the patriarchal society set up through slavery, but Southern states also have smaller cities.
“Big cities tend to have more diversity and more space for differences,” she said. “It’s not surprising that the South would have fewer LGBTQIA businesses and less of a community.”
Page attributed part of North Carolina’s lack of openly-LGBTQIA business, compared to Northern and Western states, to religious extremism and what he described as hate speech that comes with it.
“It doesn’t seem very Christian to me,” he said.
Jack Whittemore, parliamentarian for the Carolina Bear Lodge, a non-profit for gay men, said he’s also noticed that support for the LGBTQ community varies based on what part of North Carolina one goes to.
“I live in Charlotte, and for the most part, the city has embraced the community. You find that in larger cities, but in small communities, it’s different,” Whittemore said.
For business owners who don’t identify as LGBTQIA, showing support for equality and non-discrimination leads to a different kind of engagement.
Especially during the rise of LGBTQIA rights and visibility in the 1970s and on, Festle said businesses who showed they were LGBTQIA-friendly were running “smart business.”
“LGBTQIA owners have to decide how out they’re going to be. But if you’re a straight business owner and are committed to equality, you want all the customers you can get,” she said. “There are a lot of straight businessfolks who don’t want to eliminate customers.”
Noni Penland, owner of Penland Custom Frames in Greensboro, sells handmade picture frames to the Guilford County community. Penland said, since she first opened her doors, she has been supportive of the LGBTQIA community through organizations like the pro-diversity Guilford Green Foundation.
“Whenever I have extra funds, I love to support arts-based foundations, and the Guilford Green Foundation does great work with the arts as well as rights for LGBTQIA humans,” Penland said. “However best my advertising dollar can be spent, I spend it on the arts and the arts communities. A lot of the LGBTQIA community and the arts community are crossovers. We support one another as best we can.”
Penland said her positions are well-known in the community but has not faced pushback because of them.
“I’ve never had anyone question my advertising choices; I’ve never had anyone question my participation in any kind of social function that might be connected to LGBTQIA foundations or friends,” she said.
Jay Pierce is the executive chef for Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, a restaurant with locations in Greensboro and Cary. Lucky 32 is owned by Quaintance-Weaver Hotels and Restaurantsand part of the company’s “fairness doctrine” is to support equality and opportunity for groups that have not been treated fairly, including the LGBTQIA community.
“Part of our mission statement is that we have a diversity and inclusion doctrine whereby we believe that there are certain members of society who don’t get a fair shake and it is incumbent upon us to treat everyone based on ability and not predisposition,” Pierce said.
Pierce said, for either of Lucky 32’s locations in North Carolina, there has never been any negative feedback as a result of their social stances or hiring practices. But Pierce also said he doesn’t think this makes Lucky 32 an outlier among restaurants.
“I’ve found in the restaurant industry in general seems to be a lot more tolerant of diverse backgrounds than some other industries I’ve encountered,” he said. “Maybe it’s just the career choices I’ve made. I’ve always worked in independently owned restaurants.”
For businesses who identify as LGBTQIA-friendly or work to support LGBTQIA rights, this can sometimes bring them into a circle they were not initially a part of. Pierce said Lucky 32’s social stance has led to the restaurant being embraced by the LGBTQIA community in Greensboro.
“We’ve stated it in our mission statement that we believe in diversity and inclusion and that we’ll only judge people on their ability. I think we get extra credit for saying it and not just doing it because then we can be held to account,” he said. “Prominent social leaders acknowledge that we’re at the forefront in our community.”
Links between businesses and the larger LGBTQIA community is part of the reason why groups like Pride Pages and Equality NC’s Business Equality Council exist. Matt Hirschy, director of business engagement and programs at Equality NC, said the council is open to any business with a policy stating they don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We provide resources to organizations and corporations who are diverse and want to recruit top talent in North Carolina and help them to start employee resource groups,” Hirschy said. “We also allow them a space to network with other businesses that have inclusive policies as well and we try to highlight them yearly to our constituents in North Carolina.”
The council started recently, and while larger companies like Bank of America and Wells Fargo are currently being courted, Hirschy said small businesses have been the biggest asset so far, as well as larger stores like Replacements.
“We’ve already had several companies step forward and say they want to be a part of this and participate in moving forward because it is something important to us and we want to make sure we’re on the right side of history, so to speak,” he said. “We’ve also had some folks who are saying, ‘Sorry, we don’t want to be a part of this because we don’t want to associate ourselves with a social issue.’”
On Elon University’s campus, students seem to agree on whether a business run by openly-LGBTQIA owners would affect their decision to spend their money there.
“If they’re good businesspeople and they have a good reputation, I’d be just as likely to patronize them as I would straight people,” said Hagan Otto, a first-year student at Elon.
Some, like first-year Howard Huang, feel knowing a business was owned by LGBTQIA people would make them more likely to go there.
“I’d be more likely, but I guess I wouldn’t not-patronize a business if it weren’t,” Huang said. “I believe in equal rights for everyone so I don’t believe in discrimination.”
Outside of the “Elon bubble,” Alamance County residents like Bill Jordan said a business owner’s personal life would not affect his decision to patronize.
“I think if I knew enough about the business and the people to know if they’re gay, I’d know enough about them to know if I like them or not,” Jordan said. “And really, that’s all that counts.”
Alamance resident Daniqua Drayton said emphatically that the area is not accepting of LGBTQIA people, but for her personally, a store owner’s identity would not affect whether she went to a business.
“It doesn’t matter to me who you like or who you love,” Drayton said.
Penland grew up in Burnsville in Yancey County, North Carolina and said, even in the state’s mountains in the 1960s, she found pro-equality sentiments.
“I heard and saw in the mountains of North Carolina, during the summer as a result of the Summer stock theatre, all of these great, different ways of thinking. But the mountains in general were probably a bit slower in coming toward acceptance of LGBTQIA communities,” she said. “Though, the mountains of North Carolina were one of the first areas in North Carolina to integrate, so they were ahead of a lot of other counties in North Carolina in terms of that.”
For others in North Carolina, while a business being pro-LGBTQIA may not ensure their business, a company that is openly anti-LGBTQIA turns away customers like Carrboro resident Katharine Royal.
“I can’t stand the thought of giving someone money if one of my gay friends couldn’t get a job there,” Royal said.
Jim Adams, a Durham resident, said while it generally wouldn’t matter to him if a business owner was straight or LGBTQIA, for certain issues, having someone with experience in the LGBTQIA community can be beneficial.
“I would consider a gay attorney, for sure,” Adams said. “I think they’re knowledgeable and up-to-date about the gay community.”
While many residents tout North Carolina’s larger cities as LGBTQIA-friendly, there are still residents, like Durham pastor Terry Schuff, who would not patronize LGBTQIA-owned businesses.
“I don’t support them because I support the Bible, and the Bible doesn’t condone it,” Schuff said.
But Schuff added that he patronizes businesses he knows are LGBTQIA-friendly, like Time Warner Cable and Whole Foods.
Others, like Charlotte resident Jake V., agreed, saying they try to only support “Christian-owned businesses” and never go to LGBTQIA-owned stores.
“I’m not against them having the right to own that business. I’m just not going to support it,” he said.
Progress going forward
While anti-LGBTQIA sentiments still exist in North Carolina politics and society, people across the state see attitudes changing. Page said he is pleased with the spread of acceptance across the state in his lifetime.
“It’s not everywhere yet, but in a generation or so, I think things are going to be very different,” he said.
Pierce said, among restaurants, the reaction against the anti-LGBTQIA positions of Chick-Fil-A owner Dan Cathy shows things are changing.
“I see more and more people that cook and serve food for a living feel a responsibility to their community — a responsibility for fairness — and they’re speaking up more about it,” Pierce said. “Ten years ago or more, the general sentiment was, ‘We don’t want to make any enemies because everybody needs to eat.’ Now the sentiment is more of, ‘We want to do things the right way because we’re part of the community. We’re not just a place to eat.’”
Hirschy said with courts ruling against same-sex marriage bans, the next arena for LGBTQIA rights will be businesses.
“The one poignant example I point out to people is, in North Carolina, we’re a ‘right to work’ state. You could get married, then go into work the next day and be fired for getting married. And that’s completely legal in North Carolina as it stands now,” he said. “There’s still many North Carolinians who, even if they’re able to get married someday, won’t be able to celebrate the full notion of lived equality. That’s why non-discrimination is so important to us as an organization.”
Elon students like Huang see equal treatment for LGBTQIA people in North Carolina widespread in his generation.
“I actually think we’re very supportive, especially Elon. I’ve noticed all the student body is very supportive and open-minded to the LGBTQIA community and I like it here,” he said.
Students like Elon sophomore Delaney Hinnant, while acknowledging that North Carolina still has progress to make, are optimistic the state can reach full equality.
“It’s a beautiful movement. It’s for a beautiful purpose,” Hinnant said. “But in North Carolina as a whole, we’ve still got work to do. Just like everybody else.”