Alexander H. Jones: Echoes of Jesse Helms found in lieutenant governor’s statements

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 20, 2021

By Alexander H. Jones

Many North Carolina Republicans wouldn’t consider it an insult to compare their party’s lieutenant governor with Jesse Helms. So I feel no compunction about drawing parallels between Mark Robinson in the year 2021 and the most notorious Dixie demagogue of the late 20th century, elected in 1972. If anything has remained constant in North Carolina politics, it is the ability of the state to disappoint people who wanted it to move beyond its bigoted past.

Mark Robinson uses rhetoric pulled almost verbatim from the hatred on which Helms built his career. Last week, a video surfaced in which Robinson called “transgenderism … and homosexuality” a form of “filth” from which students should be shielded. It should not be, but apparently is, necessary to inform Robinson that thousands of North Carolina students are LGBTQ people and that the only way to remove “transgenderism” and homosexuality from our schools would be to kick those kids out. But that’s not the only important point. More striking was the direct similarity between Robinson’s hateful turn of phrase and one of Helms’s go-to insults, calling gays and lesbians “disgusting people.”

Helms shared Robinson’s hostility to gay people in public schools. In the late 1980s, Helms’ political team polled the question of whether gays should be allowed to teach in North Carolina schools. To our shame, a large majority of North Carolinians answered “No.” But when Helms began rousing the rabble against LGBTQ teachers, the state’s population recoiled against his hate. We can only hope that our state’s citizens are at least as tolerant now as they were three decades ago. I would like to think we are.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic that killed over 20,000 gay people, mostly men, Helms crusaded against any humane response to that lethal plague. He successfully added AIDS to the list of diseases for which people could be refused entry into the United States. He later preempted a Washington, D.C., ordinance banning insurance companies from denying coverage to the HIV-positive. I also note that George H.W. Bush, now remembered as an upstanding president and statesmen, signed these two deadly, hateful bills.

Robinson seems to have adopted Helms’s view that “you may not agree with me, but you always know where I stand.” Asked by reporters whether he stood by his comment, he answered emphatically in the affirmative. Adopting an ever-macho “hell no” tone of voice, he said that homosexuality has “no place” in our schools. As one anonymous Republican staffer told the advocacy group Carolina Forward (to which I am a contributor), Robinson really believes this “stuff” (except they did not say “stuff”). As do many of his colleagues in the General Assembly, and as did the godfather of the North Carolina Republican Party: Jesse.

Clearly, North Carolina is still capable of electing merchants of the basest hatred. Our state has indeed changed since Jesse Helms’s heyday, slowly becoming more open-minded and much more tolerant, but its traditions of inequity still weigh like a boulder on the shoulders of LGBTQ people statewide. In the early 20th century, African-American Congressman George White said “I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man and be treated like a man.”

One wonders how many LGBTQ people have similar thoughts about this state’s willingness to treat them with dignity.

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.