Most North Carolina Republicans wouldn’t consider it an insult to compare their darling with Jesse Helms. So I feel no compunction about drawing parallels between our Lieutenant Governor in the year 2021 and the most notorious Dixie demagogue of the late twentieth 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 almost exactly resonant of the hatred on which Helms built his career. Last week, a video surfaced in which Robinson called “transgenderism [sic] 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 these kids out. But that’s not the only salient point here. 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 1980’s, Helms’s political team polled the question of whether gays should be allowed to teach in North Carolina schools. To our shame, a large majority 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 North Carolinians 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 this 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 pause to 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 a “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 shit. As do many of his colleagues in the General Assembly, and as did the godfather of the North Carolina Republican Party, Jesse Helms.
Clearly, North Carolina is still capable of electing merchants of hatred. The state has indeed changed since Jesse Helms’s heyday, becoming more cosmopolitan and marginally more tolerant, but its traditions of inequity still weigh like a boulder on the shoulders of LGBTQ people statewide. In the early twentieth 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 Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.