Gannon: Openly gay legislator’s power will be persuasion to repeal HB 2

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 12, 2016

RALEIGH – When a hen gets into the fox house, it’s difficult to imagine things turning out well for the hen.

Chris Sgro is the hen. The fox house is the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

In recent years, Sgro, 33, has been executive director and a lobbyist for Equality NC, a statewide organization working to secure equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. He is familiar with the halls of the legislature, which hasn’t always been friendly to his cause. He’s been a regular there as the General Assembly debated the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and the law to allow magistrates and other government workers to opt out of marrying gay couples if their religious beliefs conflict with that.

But when the General Assembly convenes its short session April 25, Sgro will be a member of the 120-member state House. Guilford County Democrats picked the Greensboro resident and Democrat to finish the term of former Rep. Ralph Johnson, who died last month. Sgro will serve only for the rest of 2016, as his name is not on the November ballot and he has no intention of being in the legislature for long.

When he arrives in Raleigh, he’ll be the only openly gay member of either the House or Senate. Sgro and his husband, Ryan Butler, were among the first gay couples married in North Carolina after same-sex marriage was legalized.

Sgro has told media members that he will work in that capacity to try to repeal House Bill 2, the controversial law approved by the General Assembly during a special session last month and quickly signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

But don’t forget. Sgro is the hen. His power likely won’t be in his vote. He gets only one of those, House Republicans have a supermajority and 11 House Democrats voted for HB2.

Sgro’s power will be in persuasion. In a phone interview, Sgro told me that he recognizes within the current political constructs of North Carolina it seems difficult to imagine the repeal of House Bill 2. But he believes it’s possible.

Fellow legislators, he said, will benefit from hearing from someone who is personally affected by the bill. That, he believes, combined with ongoing economic development implications and protests against the legislation “are going to move the needle significantly on a deep understanding of LGBT people, and specifically transgender North Carolinians.”

Sgro said he believed “good, fair-minded people on both sides,” including moderate Republicans and Democrats, will want to repeal the bill in the short session. He also believes that McCrory can “provide the leadership necessary” in the House and Senate to repeal the bill.

“The conversation does not begin and end with whether (Senate leader) Phil Berger will consent to repeal,” Sgro said, referring to statements by Berger that he has no plans to change HB2 during the short session.

But this year, of course, is an election year. And any backtracking on HB2 would upset many voters in McCrory’s conservative base who fully support the law.

At the least, Sgro will represent a living, breathing face for the LGBT community in the General Assembly.

As the hen in the fox house, he hopes to persuade his adversaries to listen to and consider arguments from the other side, instead of quickly devouring him in a sea of red.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of the Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh.