Charlotte, N.C. — On the way to the Democratic National Convention, Lori J. Pelletier and her wife, Val, made a pilgrimage to the Providence Road Baptist Church, whose pastor preaches the extermination of gays and lesbians.
The Connecticut couple stood outside the church in Maiden, N.C., about a 45-minute drive from Charlotte, held up a digital camera and took a self-portrait of themselves kissing. They emailed it to their friends.
But a day later, she said, they felt nervous holding hands in a grocery store.
Defiance goes with fear, acceptance with hostility for the more than 500 delegates who are members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, suddenly one of the most visible elements of the Democratic coalition.
For gay delegates, the convention has been a watershed. Expressions of support for marriage equality are part of the fabric of the convention, mentioned in the same breath with civil rights for racial minorities and equal opportunities for women.
“For the first time, a major party platform recognizes marriage equality as a basic human right,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa told the convention Thursday night. “This is a reflection of who we are as a party and who we can be as a nation.”
Rick Stafford, the chairman of the LGBT caucus, said Democrats wanted no part of a highly visible gay rights movement in the 1980s, declining to recognize them. This year, Stafford had to hurry along the parade of senators, governors and others who wanted a chance to address them.
In her televised convention speech Tuesday, Michelle Obama included gay marriage in her vision of an ideal America, a time and place where “proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love.”
On Thursday afternoon, Jill Biden told the LGBT caucus, “No matter who you love, everyone should have the same rights in this country.”
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, a Connecticut delegate who says he is the first openly gay Latino mayor in the U.S., applauded Biden, smiling at the sight of a vice president’s wife addressing hundreds of gay delegates.
“We’ve come of age,” Segarra said.
But not in North Carolina.
Inside the convention, gay delegates call themselves Stonewall Democrats, a reference to the Stonewall riots in New York prompted by police harassment of gays. Outside, Stonewall is a street that most visitors associate with a Confederate Civil War general.
North Carolina voters adopted a constitutional amendment in May banning gay marriage, prompting Kevin Lembo, the Connecticut state comptroller, to question how Democrats could still meet in Charlotte.
But then President Obama endorsed gay marriage, something he had resisted doing for the first three years of his administration, although he signed a law ending the ban on gays openly serving in January 2010. Lembo said that endorsement energized gay activists.
And it erased whatever misgivings he had about the Democratic convention. Lembo is a delegate, accompanied by his husband, Charles Frey, who personally thanked Obama at a fundraiser in Stamford.
Lembo said the president stopped, turned toward them and said, “It was the right thing to do.”
Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and the son of two lesbians, told delegates Thursday that the president had taken a principled stand, popular in the convention hall, but not without political risk.
“President Obama put his political future on the line to do what was right,” Wahls said. “Without his leadership, we wouldn’t be here.
“President Obama is fighting for our families — all of our families. He has our backs.”
As a lesbian and a labor leader, Pelletier was cool to the idea of coming to North Carolina, a state where organized labor represents only 9 percent of the workforce.
That feeling was reinforced on the ride from the airport to the Connecticut delegation’s hotel on Billy Graham Parkway, named for the evangelist. Graham backed the ban on gay marriage.
“In the Northeast, we live in a bubble,” Pelletier said.
Not only is gay marriage legal in Connecticut, it was supported by prominent Republicans, some of whom publicly object to the GOP platform supporting a ban on same-sex marriage.
Pelletier said she changed her mind about having the convention in North Carolina, saying it was a way of bringing the fight for equal rights to a hostile state — and to show support for a president who has become a hero to a movement.
She was among the delegates, some straight, some gay, who surrounded a team of street preachers denouncing Democrats outside the convention for their support of gay marriage and abortion rights.
Their retort: “Four more years!”