It’s been about a month since a federal judge struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage, but lesbians and gays who exercise the right to marry still do so at considerable risk.
Same-sex couples who publicize their unions on Facebook or in newspaper announcements, or get caught in the media spotlight, risk backlash and hostility.
For Bonnie Clark, who tied the knot with longtime partner Patte Luce in a public ceremony on Trade Street during Pride Winston-Salem on Oct. 18, an obscene voicemail message dinged an otherwise celebratory mood in the days that followed. She thinks the anonymous male caller who reached her from a blocked number is probably a personal acquaintance considering that he reached her on a cell-phone number that she doesn’t give out to many people.
“He said he wanted to give me an orgasm,” Clark recalled. “When he said, ‘Answer your phone!’ it wasn’t friendly or orgasmic in any way.”
The episode is representative of the backlash against LGBT people, but ultimately not a life-changing event for Clark. “In the big picture of life,” she said, “this is small potatoes.”
It helps that Clark is self-employed. And she’s quick to say that the person who has experienced real repercussions is her friend, Kim Kimpleton,
Kimpleton was legally married on the first Friday when Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen reopened his office after a judge struck down the ban. Then, on Monday, when she returned to work at a religious charter school in Greensboro, she was fired.
For the estimated 159,000 LGBT workers in North Carolina — that number is courtesy of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law — the right to marry is largely contingent on legal protection against discrimination at work. North Carolina is one of a number of states that does not have a law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification, either in the private sector or in local and state government. Although some cities and counties, including Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point and Guilford, prohibit discrimination of their own employees, that patchwork of local ordinances covers only 2 percent of the LGBT workforce across the state.
Kimpleton told me that she was not fired because she exercised her right to marry her same-sex partner. The fact of the matter is that she would not have gotten married if she hadn’t already known that she was going to lose her job.
Her employment situation began to deteriorate at the beginning of the school year, when the principal transferred her to a kindergarten class after she had taught fifth grade for two years. She said she has no direct evidence that her sexual orientation is the reason she was fired — not that it would make a legal difference — but her gut tells her that it is so. She doesn’t want to identify the school precisely because she doesn’t have direct evidence. But she said she noticed that the administrators started treating her differently, calling her “Ms. Schultheis” — her maiden name — rather than the more informal “Kim.” And then, this year, they started faulting her for the way she was managing her kindergarten class and tried to get her to sign a “management plan.”
Kimpleton said the principal has a habit of praying during staff meetings, which he justifies by noting that they’re scheduled after school. And an administrator counseled her to “leave it in God’s hands” while discussing her employment difficulties. She planned to try to make it through the year, then look for another job.
“I knew that if I was going to stay there I couldn’t get married because I would have been out,” Kimpleton said. “Another reason I was looking for another job is because I didn’t want to be in the closet.”
On her last full day at work, the assistant director told Kimpleton she wanted to have a “chat” after school, but when she arrived there were three people in the room, including the director. They bombarded her with questions. Although they didn’t fire her then, it was clear to her that she wouldn’t be working there long.
“If I hadn’t had such a rotten day at work, we wouldn’t have gotten married,” she said.
As she and her partner, Kelly, commiserated at their home in High Point, they heard on the radio that a federal judge had overturned the ban.
“Let’s go get married,” Kim said.
“Let’s,” Kelly replied.
They are the least spontaneous couple you’re likely to meet, Kimpleton told me. Erin, Kim’s 15-year-old daughter, teased them as they drove to the register of deed’s office.
“Are we being spontaneous?” she asked.
“Yes,” Kim said.
The only place Kimpleton was not out was at work. She knew that the situation at the charter school was untenable. She knew because the first time she came out, around 2001, her depression lifted and she found her voice.
“I’m tired of them pushing me around,” she said. “I’m going to do what makes me happy. When I let them fire me, I had a huge weight come off me. And I slept through the night for the first time in six weeks. I’ve slept well ever since.”