State Rep. Cecil Brockman remembers how difficult it was to listen to the debate about House Bill 2 and before that, Senate Bill 2, which allowed magistrates to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.
“It was incredibly frustrating to hear people who have very ignorant opinions,” said Brockman (D-Guilford), “because very few of those people know a member of the LGBT community.”
When the N.C. House voted last year to override the governor’s veto of SB 2, Brockman stood and apologized to gay and lesbian couples in North Carolina before being gaveled down by the House Speaker Tim Moore.
Brockman is now ready to say to his colleagues what he was afraid to say then:
I am one of the people you think you know so much about.
I am one of the people who could face discrimination because of these laws.
Brockman, 32, is bisexual, and he said he wants to make sure that the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community knows it will still have a voice in the General Assembly when state Rep. Chris Sgro leaves the House at the end of this year, having completed the term of the late Ralph Johnson.
“I always felt that I tried to stick up for the LGBT community, even when I wasn’t ‘out,’ ” Brockman said. “I want to do more of my part, to be stronger and admit to the world that I’m actually a member of this community as well.”
It was not an easy decision.
The political rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others in the conservative movement has encouraged racism, bigotry and homophobia to a dangerous extent, Brockman said. It has emboldened supporters to express not just disapproval but hatred.
Brockman said he saw that firsthand when he accompanied Sgro and his partner, Ryan Butler, to a High Point restaurant after a recent Democratic unity meeting. Sgro and Butler were wearing anti-HB 2 buttons.
“This drunk, straight white guy came up and asked if we were gay,” Brockman recalled. When Sgro answered affirmatively, the man launched into a homophobic and obscene tirade, making such a scene that the management made him leave.
Instead of driving Brockman further into the closet, that ugly incident became a driving factor in his decision to go public.
“I don’t necessarily live that life,” he said. “I don’t wear it on my sleeve. I can live in the straight world and not be identified.”
But the idea that members of the LGBT community could be harassed in that fashion at a casual dinner in his own hometown infuriated him. And HB 2 has removed what little legal protection the LGBT community once had.
“Discriminating against folks in the LGBT community has become legal,” Brockman said. “You should be able to be who you are and love who you are and not be afraid to go out and feel like someone will harass you.”
Having gone through his first term being judged solely on his merits as a representative, Brockman said he hopes people will see that he is more than his sexuality. But he knows all too well the downside of being open about his sexual orientation. Brockman was campaign manager and aide for Marcus Brandon, who was the first openly gay representative in the N.C. legislature.
“I’ve heard what people say about LGBT people when they think they’re talking to a room full of straight people,” Brockman said. “I saw the things Marcus went through, and that made me even more fearful of what the reaction might be for me.”
Brandon said he faced unprecedented bullying by members of his own caucus, particularly on the issue of school choice.
“What they did to me I thought only happened on television,” Brandon said. “No one gets asked not to sit at the table. Or has people come down and threaten to work for your opponent.”
He said that changed when his colleagues learned he couldn’t be bullied.
But Brockman also saw how powerful Brandon’s firsthand testimony could be. When the House was debating whether to include a provision for LGBT students in an anti-bullying bill, Brandon stood up and said, “You’re talking about me.” The provision made it into the bill with a unanimous vote in the House, although it did not survive the Senate.
“Telling your story … moves people,” Sgro said. “That’s why it matters for people to be out.”
Brockman also said he was inspired by the example set by Sgro, the executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality NC, when he was appointed to complete Johnson’s term.
“The courage he displayed really helped me out,” Brockman said.
Sgro said he believes that long-term, Brockman can be even more effective as a voice for the LGBT community in the General Assembly.
“He has won supermajorities in primaries and elections. He is beloved in his community,” Sgro said. “So he’s going to have the ear of members of both parties. I think Democratic leadership and Republican leadership alike will turn to Cecil on LGBT issues to find out where the community is.”
Brockman also said he is going public for the generation to come.
“I really want young people to know that you can be a member of the LGBT community, and it’s OK,” he said. “You can run for public office and serve honorably. You don’t have to let anyone put you in a box.”
Although acceptance has grown for the LGBT community in general, it lags behind in the South, especially among African Americans, Brockman said. Many black churches preach against any kind of alternative sexuality. Members of his own family deeply believe that it is wrong, and he has kept his bisexuality from many of them until now.
“I want people to recognize that members of the LGBT community are your sons and your daughters, your aunts and uncles,” Brockman said. “You can’t turn away from those members of the community. It’s important for me as a black person to stand up for the black community, as well as stand up for the LGBT community. I’m a part of both communities, and I want to push my community to be more tolerant and accepting.”
Having agonized so long over whether to go public, he is now ready to move on.
“I hope this is a cathartic release for me, because it’s something I’ve struggled with tremendously,” Brockman said. “I really want it to be over. I want to work on public policy that will help my community, as far as economic development, education, even Medicaid expansion, which is something I really want to work on in the next session.”
He never has been a one-issue candidate and doesn’t want to be marginalized as one now.
“I hope my work will speak for itself,” Brockman said. “I don’t want to be judged on my sexuality, but for the work I’ve done for my community.”
Because he is running unopposed, he doesn’t have to worry about losing his House seat this election.
He said he worries about what his House District 60 constituents and colleagues may say or do. But he ultimately decided that being who you are is more important that how other people feel about it.
Revealing this other part of his life also will help him personalize a group of people that many of his colleagues only see in the abstract.
“The conversations they had on the (House) floor without an LGBT person in the room, versus when there was one were very different,” Brandon said.
It’s far more difficult to demonize and discriminate against a group of people when one of them is standing in your midst.
“It’s important to tell the folks down in Raleigh, you are serving with members of the LGBT community and elected members you serve with can potentially be harmed by your legislation,” Brockman said. “I hope it opens people’s eyes to realize that the work we do affects real people’s lives.”