The Tennessee Human Rights Commission board of Commissioners held a listening session for citizens of Memphis and Shelby County last night at Bridges.
The Tennessee Human Rights Commission is an independent state agency which investigates allegations of discrimination in housing, employment, Title VI and places of public accommodations. Complaintants may report discrimination based on race, color, gender, disability, national origin, religion, creed, familial status or age (40 and over).
Noticeably absent among the unlawful bases for discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations is sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Last night, I brought copies of the latest cover article from the Memphis Flyer to the commissioners about the efforts of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center to provide emergency housing services to lesbian, gay, bi and trangender youth to highlight the fact that these youth are being underserved and actively discriminated against when attempting to access emergency housing and shelter.
I also shared a personal story from a few years ago in which a friend and I tried to find shelter for one of these youth who called the center for help. The center's Youth Empowerment Services were not available at the time. The 18-year-old caller had just been kicked out of her family's home in Fayette County because she was transgender. We tried to find temporary housing for her in area shelters. But she was only allowed to stay over for one night before she was told she could not stay at these shelters. Shelters turned her away for "religious" reasons or told her that they could not ensure her safety. We were finally able to find a place for her to stay at a local church that welcomes all people.
The commissioners present at the listening forum were sympathetic, but they and I knew that they have no mandate under current Tennessee law to investigate or prosecute such claims of discrimination. Commissioner Jocelyn Wurzburg hoped that the commission would be able to investigate such claims in her lifetime, but she felt it would be a difficult task to expand the commission's mandate in the current legislative climate.
There was one bright spot though. The Regional Coordinator for the Memphis office of the TNHRC, Linda Reed, suggested that discrimination based on gender expression may be covered by the commission in some circumstances. Reed stated that similar claims of discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations have been successfully prosecuted under the category of gender. While the mandate of the commission's authority still falls short, such an interpretation may offer recourse to some LGBTQ citizens of Tennessee on a case by case basis.
If you have endured discrimination in the above areas within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act, learn more about how to file a complaint with the commission on their website.