PEMBROKE — It was 2012, and 21-year-old Charlie Jackson-Heeley was seated in a hospital.
The Rockingham native, a student at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, had just had what he describes now as a “mental breakdown” and was battling thoughts of suicide.
“My family is very conservative Republican and Catholic, so all I ever heard about gay people was very negative …,” Heeley said. “That caused me to oppress the feelings I had since was 12 … . I had been sort of dating my best friend from high school and I felt like I was hurting myself and her. Because of not wanting to lose my family and my deep religious faith … I was terrified of having to leave all of that behind. Finally, I just broke down.”
Today Heeley says he is happily married to a fellow UNCP alum, he has found acceptance from his family and even found a church that celebrates his relationship, but he says he is again feeling the pressure to make an impossible choice — between his home and his husband.
While the federal government recognizes same-sex marriage, North Carolina is one of many states where the practice remains illegal. In May 2012, North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, which established marriage in the state constitution as being only between a man and a woman.
That may all change after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia ruled late last month that a same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. As the federal appellate court has jurisdiction over North Carolina, it appears inevitable Amendment One will not survive a court challenge, and state Attorney General Roy Cooper has said he would not defend it.
Some see an overturn by an outside court as a slap in the face to the 61 percent of North Carolina voters who had favored the amendment, and the 86 percent in Robeson County, the highest in the state.
“On one hand, it was a surprise that our government officials would so quickly dismiss the votes of 60 percent of the state,” said Jeff Blackburn, pastor for Hyde Park Baptist Church in Lumberton. “It was a surprise that they would so quickly discount what 60 percent of the voters had to say, but on the other hand, as far as the culture is going, it is not surprising.”
In 2012, before Blackburn was pastor, the church campaigned in favor of Amendment One.
Blackburn, who has been married for 15 years and has three children, says he feels no ill will toward newlyweds like the Heeleys, but that he feels that Christians are the ones being unfairly persecuted by a changing culture. Blackburn offers a recent event in Oregon, wherein a lesbian couple were denied service at a bakery and the couple took the bakery to court, alleging discrimination.
“Who is really being intolerant?” Blackburn said. “I would offer to you that the baker in Oregon and other such cases show that the intolerance is much greater on the Christian community. If they are going to preach tolerance, then shouldn’t that side of the community be acting out the tolerance they speak of?”
Heeley, who is a member of an Episcopal church, which supports gay marriage, feels that the current law does more to oppress his religious beliefs than legalizing same-sex marriage would do to oppress the beliefs of churches like Blackburn’s.
“If you are religiously opposed to gay marriage, then your church does not have to perform gay marriage,” Heeley said. “Those who practice Judaism and Islam do not believe in eating pork, but they don’t try to pass laws stating that no one can eat pork. I belong to an Episcopal church, but my clergy believes that I should have the right to marriage, so it is a violation of my church’s freedom. In fact, in North Carolina it is a legal offense that carries a fine, so my own priest would receive a legal penalty for performing a marriage, even though my church is in support of it.”
Blackburn says that the debate is more than religious, but a question of societal health.
“When you are talking about marriage, we are talking about a societal structure, we are talking about something that goes back to the beginning of time,” Blackburn said. “… It goes back to a healthy structure in community … . I think that there have been studies that have shown that traditional marriages, long-term committed relationships, it is that perspective that communities are the healthiest when children are raised in traditional homes.”
Jasmine Young, who runs the UNC-Pembroke Gay Students and Allies organization, points out that the overwhelming consensus within the child psychology community is that same-sex parents perform just as well as opposite-sex parents.
“I think it is a way bigger deal than just marriage,” Young said. “This is being recognized as a human, whether you are heterosexual, homosexual, this is about equality across the board.”
Heeley was surprised to hear just how high the percentage of Robeson County voters had favored Amendment One. In his experience, Heeley says, Robeson County has been incredibly welcoming.
“The worst I’ve gotten it has actually been in bigger towns, like in Charlotte some guy screaming ‘faggot’ at me on the street,” Heeley said. “In a community like Robeson County, it is different. It is more behind closed doors. My grandparents are very Southern and one of the first things I learned from them is that you mind your own business, you don’t stare and point.”
Another reason for Heeley’s surprise has to do with the political makeup of the county. Traditionally, Robeson County has had a higher Democratic presence than Republican.
Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party, believes that for Robeson County residents, the issue is bipartisan.
“I think that the turnout for Amendment One is evidence that it is not a political issue. This is not a Republican-Democrat issue,” Stephens said. “It is a moral issue. They are voting with their faith. People are going to vote their faith … . Now I think to have the federal government decide it, it is a little concerning when the federal government overrules on state matters. The state has already spoken on the issue. North Carolina has already spoke and it came out overwhelming against it.”
For Heeley, who wishes to pursue a career in ministry, the change will mean the difference between whether or not he can begin his new life with his husband in his home state, near his parents, or elsewhere.
“Here there is definitely a pervasive feeling of being treated like a second-class citizen,” Heeley said. “Where my marriage is recognized by the federal government, it is in a limbo-like state in North Carolina, which is terrifying when you think of wanting to start a family and being in this legal limbo … If, God forbid, something were to happen to me or my husband and he wanted to see me in the hospital, you kind of have to throw yourself on the mercy of whoever admits you in the hospital and hope they recognize your relationship.”
Despite a difference in interpretation, both Heeley and Blackburn agree that hateful rhetoric and name-calling will not bring either side any closer to a consensus.
“We as a church will continue to stand for traditional marriage and as a pastor I will continue to stand for what the Bible says, and our church will continue to be on the front lines of this debate,” Blackburn said. “But at the same time, we do not, nor do I want anyone saying that we hate homosexuals. We love them dearly … These groups that get out there with signs and spit hateful things, that is not what we would be doing. That is not something Jesus would be doing here. Standing on the street corner screaming hate at people? We want to welcome everyone.”
Heeley remains optimistic that the future will hold fewer headlines about high gay teen suicide rates and more wedding announcements.
“I would like to believe that … I don’t remember who it was said that ‘the arc of the universe benefits justice,’” Heeley said. “I believe we are on the cusp of a historical moment. I believe this is bringing about the equality that was promised in the Constitution. I believe we are almost there.”