|Cameron Runyan (hoisting a bottle of champagne) during a 2008 lgbt political event (photo by Jonathan Sharpe/Free Times)|
A consultant hired by the city of Columbia to help create a human rights ordinance and commission resigns after months of complaints by a group of pastors. However that is nothing compared to the story behind the controversy. It involves a councilman elected partly on the strength of the city's lgbt community and the betrayal they felt when he suddenly turned against them.
A controversy about including lgbts in a human rights ordinance in the city of Columbia, SC has led to the resignation of a consultant the city hired to help create the ordinance and a commission. According to an article in the April 29th edition of The State newspaper:
Growing tensions over a plan to protect gays from discrimination in the city of Columbia have led to the resignation of a consultant city leaders hired to help develop a human-rights ordinance. Christine Johnson, a lesbian and advocate of gay rights, said she quit because City Councilman Cameron Runyan had obstructed her efforts to help create the proposed ordinance. Johnson said in an April 10 resignation letter that Runyan helped set up meetings with church groups to discuss ending her city contract. Runyan made misleading statements to church leaders, as well as misleading comments on a Columbia radio program concerning the proposed city human-rights ordinance, she said in her letter to City Manager Teresa Wilson.
According to the article, the city of Columbia hired Johnson in December 2014 and her consulting was not to last more than six months. However, the fact that she is openly gay led to months of complaints by a group of African-American pastors calling themselves the Christian Coalition. Bishop Eric Davis, a member of the group, told The State that the Christian Coalition doesn't want lgbts included in ordinance. The group even went so far as to have a February 26 meeting to discuss the "non-renewal" of Johnson's contract.
“Christine Johnson is not only a practicing lesbian, but she’s an advocate, an LGBT advocate,” Davis said. “So from a Christian perspective, our question was, ‘Is that built-in bias?’”
Davis said he believes homosexuality is a sin and said he has broad support from African-American churches representing 100,000 members.
Runyan denies that he had anything to do with Johnson's resignation, but the incident is yet another chapter in the quiet but intense war between him and Columbia's lgbt community. However, this story isn't your conventional one about an anti-gay elected official attempting to run roughshod. It reads more like a soap opera with the elements of betrayal being heavy in the mix.
Councilman Runyan's "new attitude"
At one time Runyan was a very strong ally of Columbia's lgbt community. His wife was on the board of the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Business Guild and he would make several appearances at chapter meetings. When he ran for city council in 2008 and 2012, he actually sought the assistance and support of the lgbt community. He spoke at the Harriet Hancock Community Center, which is the lgbt pride center in Columbia. In addition, fundraisers were held for him, including one in the home of a gay couple and other members of the lgbt community volunteered their time to help him get elected.
Runyan was elected the Columbia City Council in 2012 But a year before, according to Runyan, he had a near death experience during the Christmas holidays in the Caribbean which led him to have a different worldview. Runyan told the story to bradwarthen.com, a blog run by former State editor Brad Warthen:
He and his extended family were spending the Christmas holidays in the Caribbean. On Boxing Day 2011, he and a couple of other family members went out for a run . . .
Suddenly, he could not go on. His muscles were seizing up, and he could hardly breathe. Apparently, it was a matter of dehydration or something of that sort — in any case, his electrolytes (which plants crave) were all out of whack. “The point of dehydration where I was is 50-60% fatal,” he added in a text to me today. “You more often die than live at that point. It was extremely dire and painful.” He thought this was it; he was dying. And as he lay more or less helpless on a bed in a medical facility later, trying to recover, he concluded that he was not happy with how he had lived his life thus far. He felt himself to be lacking the proper connection to something greater than himself. Over the coming months, he plunged into a new sort of relationship with God, one with an evangelical flavor. For a time, his wife had a hard time dealing with the new Cameron. Then one day, he came home and she had undergone a conversion of her own. From then on, the Runyans were on the same journey, bringing their kids along with them.
And apparently, a central part of this conversion was to join a conservative church (Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church) which views homosexuality as a sin. Subsequently, Runyan made a 180 degree turn and began to oppose lgbt equality. Last year, he voted "no" to granting benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees. In a column published in The State afterwards, Runyan claimed that it would have been a vote to "redefine marriage." But the vote had taken place after two federal judges and a federal appeals court struck down South Carolina's law against marriage equality. His was the only "no" vote and the motion still passed.
It was in that same column that Runyan gave the indication that he was no longer an ally of the lgbt community:
There was a time when I believed, like an increasing number in our culture, that what is truth for one person may or may not be truth for another person. I believed that we should essentially let people do whatever makes them happy within their version of truth.
However, my eyes were opened a few years ago to the reality that increasing moral relativism is contributing to the unraveling of the societal foundations we all depend on. Because so many now see all moral issues as being relative to the individual, we are quickly becoming a society where absolute moral truth no longer exists. Nowhere is this more apparent than with human sexuality.
Twenty-five years ago, there was not one country on the planet where same-sex marriage was legal. Today, the push to redefine marriage and sexuality has become the issue of utmost moral urgency in our culture. This movement has led us to redefine gender and the central institution of the family in ways that no previous generation in the history of the world could imagine
Runyan's action shocked many in the lgbt community because up until that time, they thought he was still an ally. And his column turned their shock to anger.
And recently, he conducted a radio interview on the proposed human rights ordinance which led to the present controversy. This is where he made comments Johnson called misleading. Runyan said adding lgbts to the human rights ordinance would endanger children:
Ordinances like the one proposed in Columbia are being passed around the country, but that doesn’t make them right, Runyan said during the WGCV radio interview. Including gender identity discrimination in the law could allow boys to use the same bathrooms as girls, according to a recording of the interview.
“That is exactly what is happening all around the country where these ordinances are passed,” he said. “ I will stand up against anyone who is pushing this kind of moral revolution, to protect the citizens of this city, to protect our children and our park facilities, to protect our girls and our boys, from the very real worry of endangerment if this law passes.”
The irony of that statement is that in 2008, Columbia already added sexual orientation and gender identity to a pre-existing law banning discrimination in housing and public accommodations. Runyan's claim about "boys using the same bathrooms as girls" is a moot issue at best.
To say the least, Columbia's lgbt community are absolutely livid over what they see as a betrayal by a former ally. Local author Sheila Morris took Runyan to task last year over his "new attitude:
I feel strangely torn between the euphoria of our marriage license issued on the 19th. of November and the depression I felt four days later on the 23rd. when Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan wrote a column in the State newspaper entitled “Why I Cannot Support the Redefinition of Marriage” to explain his solo vote against extending marriage benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. In the editorial Councilman Runyan asked us to respect his “worldview” which he said doesn’t include a city with equal rights for all of its employees. And I totally would respect it except…
His “worldview” mysteriously changed the day of the vote. Was he the same Cameron Runyan Facebook friend who visited our Guild and other GLBT meetings during his campaign for City Council – the same Cameron Runyan who asked us to raise money for his election because he was a fresh new voice that pledged to speak for fairness and equal rights for all the citizens of Columbia – apparently not. Then who was that masked man who spoke with forked tongue and whose hand I shook in friendship.
The human rights ordinance has yet to be voted upon and with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin being a very strong ally of the city's lgbt community, my guess is that the fireworks which led to Johnson's resignation have just started.
But as for Runyan, he is facing a strong challenger for re-election in November and there are a lot of lgbts in the city of Columbia who are biding their time to send him a message.
And one can easily guess what that message will be.
Editor's note - To garner lgbt opinion on Runyan, I had many conversations with various members of the lgbt community.