The Charlotte Way

Remembering Parks Helms

On April 1, 1997, at the age of twenty, I sat in the meeting chamber of Charlotte’s government center as a narrowly divided board of county commissioners, over raucous objections from hundreds of people, codified homophobia in Mecklenburg County.

I had been walking out of my dorm at Queens University of Charlotte the week before when I spotted a copy of the Observer lying outside my resident coordinator’s door. I stopped to take a peak at the headlines — and there it was: “Anti-gay resolution is proposed.”

Hoyle Martin, one of five Democrats on the nine-member county commission, wanted to cut funding for arts groups that featured works touching on homosexuality and for social service organizations that, without parental authorization, counseled or advised children regarding sexual orientation. The plan also called for county dollars to be stripped from all private organizations that “promote, advocate, or endorse behaviors, lifestyles and values that seek to undermine and deviate from the value and societal role of the traditional American family — a husband, wife and possible offspring.” (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

The immediate prompt for Martin’s outburst was Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s 1996 production of Tony Award-winning Angels in America, an exploration of the early years of the AIDS crisis. His concerns, however, went far beyond the staging of a play: Martin expressed a broader, deeper homophobia that feared Charlotte was becoming “the Sodom and Gomorrah capital of the East Coast,” characterized queer people as pedophiles, and expressed a desire to commit genocide by “shov[ing] these people off the face of the earth.”

By the time commissioners met to consider the resolution, Martin’s sympathetic, politically savvier colleagues — Tom Bush, Joel Carter, George Higgins, and Bill James, the four Republicans who would join him to form a gay-bashing bare majority known as the Gang of Five — had reworded his proposal to make it appear to be something other than the homophobic slur it was. Their machinations fooled no one, and an overflow crowd showed up to voice its objections. Dressed conservatively in a coat and tie, I took a front-row seat behind one of the podiums from which speakers addressed the board.

Details from the night-long meeting are a blur. The dozens of speakers sounded the same — at least it seems that way as I plumb my twenty-five-year-old memories in an effort, perhaps unsuccessful, to separate the authentic from the apocryphal: The words of those who rose up against the commissioners’ profanity were somehow both profoundly decent and completely forgettable. (I do not exempt my own comments from this description. I said nothing of consequence, though the occasion did mark the first time I publicly identified myself as something other than straight, a matter of great personal significance.)

Democrats Parks Helms, Becky Carney, and Jim Richardson celebrate their victory in the 1998 race for three at-large seats on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.

Only one speaker’s words have stayed with me through the years, those of Joe Martin, a prominent banker and civic leader who was in the grip of increasingly debilitating ALS when he aimed an uncompromising jeremiad at the Gang of Five. (Martin was no relation to Commissioner Martin.)

In 2016, when the North Carolina General Assembly passed the odious House Bill 2, which also targeted the queer community, writer Barry Yeoman recounted Martin’s remarks, which sought to place the gang’s ideas in historical context:

“Hear me: I am afraid of you. My family has been down this path, with governments of moral arrogance before. The English burned us out of our thatched roof cottages because we refused to obey their king or their Bible. The French burned our bodies at the stake because our religious beliefs were in conflict with the official interpretation of the Bible. And then we formed a government that allowed us to burn the skin of human beings with hot branding irons to make them our property — and our government found justification for that in the Bible. So you may hide behind the Bible if you like, but I know you. I have seen you before.”

He continued, “Take a deep breath. So deep you can smell history. There’s a stench in this government chamber, and it is centuries old. It is the smell of burning thatch in Scotland. It is the smell of burning flesh in France — and in Germany in this century. It is the smell of burning books in Boston. It is the smell of burning branding irons in Charleston. It is the smell of burning crosses in Charlotte. It is the smell of government rotting in the abuse of its power, all in the name of religion.”

These words, though they captured the imaginations of most of those in attendance, went unheeded. At the meeting’s conclusion, commissioners voted 5-4 to make homophobia the official policy of Mecklenburg County.

Parks Helms, the silver-haired Democrat who chaired the board and who died last weekend at the age of eighty-seven, allowed all of his colleagues to speak before offering some valedictory remarks on the matter at hand. He said he wasn’t angry because he was too sad to be angry. And even though he expressed a civic mourning that accepted he would lose the immediate fight, Helms also seemed to believe in the promise of a different future. As a majority of his colleagues were poised to start down a dark, divisive path, he displayed a calm dignity that suggested everything would be OK, that we would eventually pull ourselves out of a mess created by a small band of extremists, that we, as a community, were better than this. Right would triumph — not that night, but, if we worked for it, then another day. Helms’s somber, sober hopefulness meant quite a lot to a college kid who sometimes tipped too easily into pessimism, and it still means a great deal to the similarly flawed middle-aged man that kid has become.

The Gang of Five deposed Helms as chairman in December 1997 and elevated Bush to the board’s top spot. (Martin collected his thirty pieces of silver and was named vice-chair.) Meanwhile, commissioners continued to disgrace themselves. On one occasion they threatened to disband an advisory group that dared to criticize them. On another occasion several commissioners refused to support the commendation of an African-American resident whom they perceived to be too politically and culturally radical, James — and, if memory serves, Carter — refusing even to shake her hand. (While speaking to commissioners, the award’s recipient directly addressed the graceless James and disclosed that she not only lived in his district, but had voted for him!)

It was hard to watch, and the experience required patience — but Helms would be proven right.

Voters weighed in when they went to the polls in 1998. Four of the five gang members — Martin, Bush, Carter, and Higgins — weren’t returned to office: Martin didn’t make it onto the ballot as an independent after he left the Democratic Party, Bush chose to make an unsuccessful congressional run, Higgins lost in the primary, and Carter lost in the general. (James would linger on the commission until he was finally ousted in 2018. He would spend his twenty-two years in office behaving mostly as a troll.)

Helms was among the Democrats that voters reelected, and when it came time for his newly installed colleagues to select a chairman, they returned him to the position from which he had been removed the previous year.

After his election to the post, Helms took his seat at the center of the commissioners’ dais, looked up at the crowd gathered to celebrate a great victory, and, with a knowing grin, quipped, “Now where were we?”

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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