The North Carolina Bar Association is facing backlash from LGBTQ members after its president, Clayton Morgan, canceled a June 8 drag trivia event, saying the organization should not “steer into contested politics.”
The trivia night had been planned as a social networking event for LGBTQ attorneys and other members of the professional organization at the Motorco Music Hall in Durham, according to two members of the association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) committee, which planned the event.
The cancellation and the backlash is the latest example of how companies and professional associations — Disney and Bud Light being the most prominent cases — are trying to navigate highly polarized issues around gender and sexuality while balancing the fiercely opposed viewpoints of different customer segments and politicians.
SOGI Committee members learned of the cancellation in an email from Morgan sent on May 5, and shared with WFAE. In the email, Morgan said he had “not come to this difficult decision lightly or without a lot of thought and consideration.”
In a follow-up video call with committee members on May 8, Morgan elaborated, saying the association’s core mission was to promote the administration of justice, and that the organization should not “steer into contested politics or offer up political responses.”
“From a political standpoint, drag shows and drag queens have now become part of a narrative that is being highlighted in the negative.” Morgan said in a recording of the call shared with WFAE. The recording was shared on the condition of anonymity because the association does not allow members to record meetings.
“It’s a hotly debated issue right now, and the SOGI event will simply be misconstrued,” Morgan said. “Even though the event’s planners’ intent was not to make it that — it was not meant for the drag show to be controversial, it’s going to be perceived that way by many members of our organization and the public, and the General Assembly.”
Morgan suggested the committee could instead hold a forum discussion with a “neutral moderator” that could “present both sides” of the issue, “that way you’re not perceived as trying to advance just your agenda on the world.”
He added that the association needed to focus on advancing legislative efforts in the General Assembly, and that “given the nature of how drag shows are being used and portrayed now, it’s likely that our bar association-backed legislative agenda will be negatively affected” if the event were to be held.
In a statement to WFAE, the North Carolina Bar Association confirmed that the June 8 event had been canceled out of concern that the event “would most likely be interpreted as a political statement on behalf of the NCBA by many within the organization, the profession, and the state, which would serve to impair the effectiveness of the NCBA.”
“In reaching this difficult decision, NCBA leadership recognized that the decision may disappoint and hurt members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies, though this was not the purpose of the decision,” the statement said.
Cancellation comes after GOP considers banning public drag shows
Drag shows, brunches, Bingo games and trivia nights are relatively common in cities across North Carolina. But they have become a recent target for Republican lawmakers seeking to regulate the conduct of gay and transgender people in North Carolina and elsewhere around the country.
Over the last few months, North Carolina Republicans have introduced bills to limit transgender surgeries for minors and restrict transgender students from playing school sports. Another bill would require schools to out transgender students to their families.
In April, Republicans in the North Carolina House also introduced House Bill 673, which would ban drag performances in public spaces or wherever children or teenagers under 18 are present.
The bill defines drag as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.” A first offense would be classified as a misdemeanor and any subsequent offense would be considered a felony.
The bill has not progressed out of committee. It is likely dead after failing to meet the April 27 crossover deadline, when legislation must pass either the House or Senate in order for the other chamber to pick up and consider the bill before the legislative session ends on Aug. 31.
Decision met with fury from LGBTQ attorneys
Morgan’s announcement in the May 8 video call was met with immediate dismay and fury from members of the SOGI committee who were in attendance.
“Cut the bulls—-” attorney Michael Roessler said after Morgan had finished his initial remarks. “The political reality of North Carolina is that there is a homophobic, anti-queer supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly, and you are afraid of it. Just speak it plainly,”
Another attorney, identified on the call as attorney Drew Culler, said the event previously had wide approval from the association’s board and leadership, and said he found the decision immensely disappointing.
“This is a political decision from the NCBA,” Culler said.
In the days following the May 8 video call, two committee members submitted their resignations from the association, including Roessler and Charlotte-based mediator Joey Barnes. Another mediator, Scott Taylor, resigned from the SOGI committee but retained his association membership.
Candelario Saldana, another attorney, later wrote on Facebook that the Pauli Murray LGBTQ Bar Association would host the drag event sometime in the coming weeks.
“The NCBA leadership basically said that it is willing to sacrifice the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in order to advance its other [agenda]” in the legislature, Saldana wrote.
While on the video call, Morgan also responded to the committee members’ condemnation and anger, saying at one point, “This is painful to me, it is.”
“Sometimes you have to make decisions that no one likes, because you’re looking at the larger picture,” he said.