Key LGBT black leaders make significant history in Charlotte, N.C.
qnotes | Jeff Taylor
Each a champion for the cause in their own right
Charlotte’s black LGBT history has been shaped and driven by countless leaders and creatives. Here are four such individuals who have had, and continue to have, a substantial impact locally and beyond.
Tonyia Rawls, Spiritual Leader and Activist
Bishop Tonyia Rawls has played a key role in the spiritual and social development of Charlotte, N.C.’s minority communities since arriving in the city a decade and a half ago from Washington, D.C., to found the first Unity Fellowship Church Movement congregation in the Bible Belt. The liberal protestant denomination is centered on the philosophy of embracing those who have been marginalized by larger society and its institutions.
Rawls has since gone on to found Sacred Souls Community Church, in 2014, a separate church which is in the process of joining the United Church of Christ, and which seeks to reach a broader cross section of the city.
“One of the things that I had been grappling with was the fact that in so many parts of my work it was extremely intersectional, and there were ways that my work outside of my congregation was looking different than my work in the congregation,” Rawls says.
She stresses that she stands firmly behind the work the United Church of Christ is doing in Charlotte.
“It was just about taking the ministry to its next phase of life,” she says.
Social justice advocacy work continues to be at the forefront of the work Rawls and her congregation are doing as well, with plans to attend the Feb. 13 Moral March on Raleigh, organized by the North Carolina NAACP and Democracy North Carolina, to call attention to a host of issues such as attacks on voting rights, public education and the working poor.
Rawls understands that all of these issues are interconnected, just like those who have been discriminated against, be it due to their race, sexuality or gender identity.
“If they can separate us, it is easier to attack us, and at the point where we realize where these things are coming from, as we think about some of the egregious actions that have been taken by some of our political structures here in our state in particular, what we know is that the same people who are coming for the gay, lesbian, bi and trans community are also stripping healthcare and are denying access to equality and voting, and are supportive of systems that lead to over incarceration of the poor and of people of color…and we’re no longer drinking that Kool-aid. We realize that we’re at a very pivotal point in our life as a community,” Rawls says, confident that progress will continue to be made.
She describes herself as an eternal optimist and points out that, slowly but surely, we are winning the culture wars.
Jermaine Nakia Lee, Renaissance Man
Jermaine Nakia Lee cannot, for the life of him, quit this city.
“I joke with my friends that I’ve been moving out of Charlotte for the last 20 years,” he says, “but Charlotte has been really good to me.”
While he has spent some time in New York, N.Y., and Atlanta, Ga., for extended creative projects, he has spent most of his time in the Queen City and reports that he is glad about that fact.
“What I love is that…I still feel like there is a gold rush going on in Charlotte,” Lee says. “You know, it still has things to be desired, but you can come and get your fortune here. You can create what’s missing.”
What Lee felt was missing in the African-American gay community was primarily visibility. To that end, he began having conversations with his friend Damon Blackmon as to why there wasn’t a black gay Pride in the city.
He recounts that at first he went to Charlotte Pride to talk to them about adding more diversity in their programming, offering to take the lead in helping to create it, but was met with a lack of interest.
So they decided to start their own event, Charlotte Black Gay Pride, founded in 2005.
“We formed the first board of directors, and we had no money, we just had a dream and a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” Lee remembers.
“Eventually we did get a little money: donors from the community, HRC (Human Rights Campaign) gave us some cash, the International Federation of Black Pride gave us cash, the National Black Justice Coalition gave us cash,” Lee says. “This was closer to the actual Pride date, though, because I don’t think anyone even thought we were going to do it. People admit that to us now.”
Lee says that there were also many in those organizations who wondered if it would be possible to mobilize the community.
“They knew there was a lot of self-hate and stigma in the black (gay) community itself,” he says. “But it happened, and it actually was a record breaking first Pride. We had over 5,000 people attend that Pride.”
He remembers that there was a lot of support from the white LGBT community, but that there was also a backlash from people who called the event “separatist.”
“And it wasn’t that at all,” Lee says, “but what we wanted to acknowledge is that there is such thing as African-American gay culture, and there is such thing as Latino gay culture, and such thing as Asian gay culture. That gay culture isn’t defined by white American culture. There are certainly habits and elements that we share but it’s okay to acknowledge that other cultures celebrate Pride in their own unique ways. And we always invited everybody to come and partake of that celebration. It was never about separation at all.”
Lee says that people now seem to understand the purpose and need for the event, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
He would eventually step down from the board of directors to start Carolinas Black Pride Movement, under which he started South Carolina Black Gay Pride, Triangle Black Gay Pride and Triad Black Gay Pride.
Lee works for the PowerHouse Project, an HIV prevention and education center, which provides testing, counseling and basic social services, primarily focusing on young men of color.
He is also a noted playwright who currently works for the Charlotte African-American repertory company On Q Productions, where he serves as its education director, as well as a resident director.
He says he feels fulfilled in his work, which allows him to be an educator, artist and healer. Charlotte is lucky to still have him.
Jonathan Perry, HIV/AIDS Activist
When Jonathan Perry came out as a gay, HIV positive man on the campus of Johnson C. Smith, it was a revolutionary act. He was the first to do so at a historically black college or university. It was also the early 2000s, and the disease, while no longer the death sentence it once was, still had a lot of stigma attached to it.
Perry spoke at a sorority-sponsored forum on HIV/AIDS his sophomore year. The occurrence, along with the continued activism that followed from Perry, caught both local and national attention.
“One of my first actions was to put together a forum on diversity and sexual minorities, a first for Johnson C. Smith. The forum was based on what I had witnessed and heard about the needs on the campus…I had heard stories of attempted suicide because of difficult coming out,” Perry told qnotes in 2004.
He also went on to form the LGBT student group A-3 (African-American Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Education), which he reported took longer than usual because of fear that “the school would somehow lose funding if they recognized our group.”
After seeking the advice of members of the LGBT African-American community, including Rawls, and said that he threatened to go to the press about the delay. The group was then approved.
Lee says that everything going on at Johnson C. Smith University right now that is inclusive and accepting of the LGBT community can ultimately be tied back to Perry and his bravery in standing up at a time and in a place where it was not expected or easy.
Perry continues to speak on HIV/AIDS at conferences and other events, continuing the education and advocacy work he started over a decade ago in Charlotte, N.C.
LaWana Mayfield, Community Political Representative
When LaWana Mayfield was talked into running in a primary election against District 3 incumbent Warren Turner, who had held the job since 2003, even she thought it might be a long shot. Not only was she an unknown, but there had never been an openly gay Charlotte City Council member and only one African-American female, Ella Scarborough.
She raised over 15 times the money as Turner and won the election with 51 percent of the vote, to his 34 percent, with a third candidate, Svend Deal, taking 15 percent.
Before a life in politics, Mayfield worked as a community organizer with such organizations as the Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, Charlotte Community Justice Coalition, as well as serving on the board of the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund.
Just by being openly gay, Mayfield was helping to make a difference, when in 2012 the city decided to extend health and other benefits to same sex partners of city employees.
“One of my colleagues said to me three or four months afterwards that it was because of knowing me and [Mayfield’s partner] Gelissa, that they knew that to vote against domestic partner benefits … they felt like that would be a vote directly against us,” Mayfield told qnotes when it named her as one of its persons of the year in 2013. “I didn’t realize until after the fact the impact of just being at the table and how important it is to just have a voice.”
She was one of the city council members to vote down an amended version of the LGBT non-discrimination ordinance last year, which would have removed transgender protections. Mayfield stressed the importance of not leaving anyone behind in the fight for equality and justice. It was a controversial decision, but one that earned her respect from many corners of the community as it showed her commitment to full LGBT rights.
Mayfield is the Housing and Neighborhood Development chair, and is actively involved in working on affordable housing in Charlotte, N.C., which is becoming more and more of an issue.
She recently attended a forum in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood to discuss the issue with residents. The area is both home to many of the city’s LGBT residents, but is also one of the parts of town most affected by the condo and apartment boom that threatens to leave the less fortunate permanently displaced.