My hometown now has an openly gay mayor

By this point, you’ve probably all heard plenty about Tuesday’s election. About the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia that went to Republicans, about the loss in Maine that overturned the legislative decision to allow same-sex couples to marry.
There was one piece of news that literally hit home with me on Tuesday–and that was the news that my North Carolina hometown, Chapel Hill, now has an openly gay mayor.
I often talk about what growing up in North Carolina was like for me–how in many ways my public high school experience there was pretty limiting. Being gay was just simply not an option in my teenage world in Chapel Hill. I didn’t know any gay people, at least not any that I could relate with. My peers and I were very focused on dating, and dating boys specifically. I was in the closet for more than three years after leaving home–it took a while to undo some of the socialization of my childhood and meet those queer folks who I did relate to and whose friendship allowed me to explore my own sexuality.
Chapel Hill is an interesting place within North Carolina because in many ways it’s much more liberal than the surrounding cities and regions. Jesse Helms, the well-known and always controversial former Senator representing North Carolina was often quoted for saying:

Why build a zoo when we can just put up a fence around Chapel Hill?

He was referring to the liberalism of my town–but what I’ve come to realize since leaving North Carolina almost eight years ago is that it is, in the end, all relative. Chapel Hill was liberal in comparison to the rest of North Carolina, but particularly for me as a young person there, that didn’t mean too much.
So now, looking back, I wonder if having a gay mayor would have changed things for me growing up. Would it have made me see that being gay was an option, even for a political figure? Would it have opened up my world a little bit?
Maybe not. But after meeting a young person from my high school at a recent presentation and hearing him say that things there haven’t changed so much since I left, I want to hold on to some hope that this could be the catalyst for a new reality for the young lgbtq people growing up in my town.

Join the Conversation

  • dormouse

    I was glad to see this. I live in Chapel Hill now, going to UNC.
    That article does say that Carrboro has had an openly gay mayor, but I’m not sure when that was. Or if it it still is. (For those who aren’t from this area, Carrboro and Chapel Hill are right next to each other, you can easily walk from downtown Chapel Hill to downtown Carrboro in about 15 minutes).

  • Catriona

    I live in North Western North Carolina, and to say that it is conservative here is a bit of an understatement. I was thrilled to find this out after Tuesday’s elections. I think it really does help. It gives young people hope that progress is possible, even here. And if it’s possible here then it’s possible anywhere.

  • mercaque

    Carrboro had an openly gay mayor in the late ’90s – early 00’s. His name was Mike Nelson (to the delight of this MST3K fan). I’m not sure when he quit being mayor, but I do recall he was reelected at least once.
    FWIW, Chapel Hill’s new mayor, Mark Kleinschmidt, has been on the city council since about the same time.

  • katemoore

    And the thing that was even better was that it was a relatively clean campaign. Most of the opposition to Kleinschmidt was because he was perceived as “anti-business” and too much of an “establishment” candidate — not because he was gay.
    About the only incident I could think of was when Kevin Wolff, another one of the guys running for mayor, put out this dog-whistly flier criticizing Kleinschmidt for being a “gay rights activist” who doesn’t have children (i.e. isn’t heterosexual), but very few people took it seriously.

  • katemoore

    Not that the news was all good. It’s the first time in years that the town council is all white. Jim Merritt, the only black member of the council, wasn’t re-elected.

  • Comrade Kevin

    The city I grew up in Alabama was certainly more liberal than much of the surrounding state, but I’d be very surprised if it ever elects an openly gay mayor. However, all is not lost. The part of Birmingham known as Crestwood, which is the official/unofficial part of town where all the LGBTs live did elect a openly lesbian and liberal representative to the state House of Representatives, Patricia Todd.

  • Josh

    I live in Chapel Hill/Carrboro (I say both because I live on the border between the towns and spend equal time in both) and I must tell you, by the way you described things, this town has definitely changed.
    I came out of the closet when I was 13 in middle school, I got a few odd looks but it was fine. I went to my 8th grade formal in drag and have only been harassed once or twice (never physically). I always have figured myself lucky for growing up in such an understanding area and love this area so much for it. It saddens me that you didn’t have this same experience, but the town has definitely changed. We have a huge GSA, one of our biggest clubs and fights are most often between two girls over another girl.
    I will tell you though, that it appears to me that it is much easier for a girl to come out in this town than for a guy to. I say this not to say that women have it easier everywhere, nor most places at all. However, where I go to school, I am one of the 5 gay men that I know. There are however over 15 bi-sexual and lesbian women who I go to school with. I think it is harder for guys to accept that their friends are gay than for girls to for the most part. I know that girls have been way more accepting of me than guys have been.
    This town has definitely changed and it is still continuing too. I love living here. I hope you come back to town one day so you can see how accepting this town has become.
    (Sorry for any spelling or grammatical mistakes! I just got home from writing 5 pages for a US history test so I am tired as hell.)

  • chrisbean

    Yeay!! Go, North Carolina!
    I live in Cambridge, MA (aka The People’s Republic of Cambridge), where it maybe isn’t so badass that we have a gay mayor. But our mayor happens to be a Black lesbian, and I love that about my city.