Broad support for gay equal rights in NC, study finds

by Amy Kingsley

Gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities face a mixed bag of lingering discrimination and increasing tolerance when it comes to living in North Carolina, according to a recent study commissioned by the Common Sense Foundation.

The study, titled “Liberty and Justice For All: A Study of Issues Affecting the LGBT Community in North Carolina,” found that most residents support equal rights for sexual minorities in legal, employment and housing transactions. However a majority of the North Carolinians still said they believe it is fair to limit marriage, employee benefits and adoption to heterosexual couples.

North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast that has not passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, but a law on the books since 1996 prevents the recognition of same-sex unions performed in other states. Gay rights advocates have struggled with state lawmakers’ refusal to include sexual orientation in non-discrimination policies and lack of support for the federal AIDS Drug Assistance Program. North Carolina has the worst track record among all states in providing AIDS treatment to its poorest residents, a disproportionate number of whom are gay, said David Mills, executive director of the progressive Common Sense Foundation.

“If you do a national comparison, I think we’re not doing very well,” Mills said. “But if you do a regional comparison, I think we’re making progress.”

Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, conducted the poll of 25,000 registered voters in late September last year. Mills said the amount of support for equality in legal transactions was a surprising and encouraging trend. The results, which have a 4 percent margin of error, revealed that 73 percent of North Carolinians believe all people should have equal rights under the law regardless of sexual orientation. However, only 12 percent said that defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is unfair, with 54 percent saying it is fair and 34 percent undecided.

The study surveyed the state of human rights for sexual minorities in several different areas including employee benefits, adoption and transgender issues. Some counties and municipalities, particularly Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham city and county and Orange County, have adopted policies that protect and extend benefits to sexual minorities. Greensboro lawmakers have adopted a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation but have not extended employment benefits to same-sex couples.

North Carolina lags behind all states in its treatment of low-income residents battling HIV/AIDS, according to the study. The Tar Heel State is one of only nine in the country with a waiting list for its AIDS Drug Assistance Program, and North Carolina residents account for a whopping 42 percent of all patients nationwide waiting for drugs. While most states have set eligibility levels at 300 percent of the federal poverty level or more, North Carolina residents must earn 125 percent or less of the poverty level to qualify for the program. Single people earning more than $11,638 a year do not qualify for drug assistance. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that a year’s supply of antiretroviral therapy costs at least $12,000, according to the study.

“It becomes all the more reprehensible when you talk about how little money is at stake,” Mills said. “Two to three million would fund the program at an appropriate level.”

Mills said the 2006 budget did allocate more money to the program, but that the amount of money still did not meet the state’s needs.

The Common Sense Foundation is planning forums in several locations across the state to discuss the report and stimulate grassroots action. One of the first is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday July 25 at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Greensboro.

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