As you know, today we brought the NonDiscrimination Ordinance and Resolution before the Memphis City Council with the support of Councilwoman Janice Fullilove. Jonathan Cole of TEP and Dr. Steve Gaines of Bellevue Baptist Church were chosen to speak for each side of the discussion. After each spoke, there was further discussion that neither side was able to address given the time constraints of the meeting. These are my observations as to the issues that TEP needs to address further as we go forward through this process.
First, it would appear that Dr. Gaines and his colleagues are unclear on the difference between the Ordinance and the Resolution. The Ordinance protects only City employees, as Councilman Flinn tried to make clear.
Second, there seems to be some confusion about the term "gender expression". Dr. Gaines seemed to indicate that his understanding was related to flamboyant behavior, or some perceived stereotype of what gays and lesbians act like in a professional environment. The use of this term is commonly associated with transgender employees, but applies to all employees. It denotes how a person's gender identity is communicated to others, through behavior, clothing, hairstyle, voice, and emphasizing, de-emphasizing or changing physical characteristics.
For example, a heterosexual female employee who wears her hair short, little or no makeup, and never wears skirts to work might be perceived as being 'masculine' and assumed to be a lesbian based solely on her appearance. Such a perception by coworkers or managers may lead to the heterosexual employee being discriminated against on the basis of a perceived homosexuality where such perception is false.
Third, this Ordinance is being portrayed as being discriminatory to people of faith. While Dr. Gaines asserted that he did not speak for all Christians, he proceeded to present a decidedly Evangelical Christian point of view in which he claimed that Christians were being discriminated against because of their personal beliefs if they had to abide by this Ordinance. He spoke at length about Christian businessmen not being able to perform contracts with the City. Once again, Dr. Gaines was confusing the Ordinance and the Resolution.
This Ordinance requires that employees and managers refrain from discriminatory behavior in the workplace. Current federal law (Title VII) places a similar burden on a variety of faiths besides Christianity. For example, in some world religions such as Islam, women are forbidden to associate with single males without being chaperoned by a male relative. In the United States, however, a Muslim male manager could not discriminate against a female employee in hiring, promotion, or discharge based on his personal religious beliefs about the role of women in society.
Finally, there was a discussion about whether or not such discrimination has actually occurred in City employment. Some of the Council seemed to feel that, because no discrimination had been reported to Human Resources, that no discrimination exists. As someone about to enter the field of Labor and Employment Law, I receive inquiries from people who feel they are being discriminated against on a regular basis by private employers.
Unfortunately, neither federal or state law offers them any recourse with the EEOC, so there is no record of their complaints. City employees have no current recourse either, and to complain without protections in place is to invite retaliation in the workplace by those committing the offense. To conclude, that since no one is filing complaints that will not be heard, a lack of official complaints is equivalent to no discrimination occurring is disingenuous and illogical.
Michelle L. Bliss
Vice Chair, Tennessee Equality Project Shelby County Committee
Board Member, Tennessee Equality Project Statewide Board