Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's time for Memphis City Government to do the right thing for its employees

On Tuesday, October 26, the Personnel, Intergovernmental & Annexation Committee of the Memphis City Council will resume discussion of LGBT-inclusive workplace protections for City of Memphis employees. Two items appear on the agenda.

The first item is not new - an ordinance to amend Chapter 9 of the City of Memphis Code of Ordinances to include nondiscrimination based upon sexual orientation, gender identity or expression (SOGIE). The employment non-discrimination ordinance (ENDO) covering only city employees is LGBT-inclusive and would require approval in three readings by the full City Council following the committee's review and recommendation.

Last August, TEP requested that an Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance and Resolution be pulled from the City Council's agenda citing withdrawal of support from Mayor Wharton and lack of support and bias on the council. Despite citizen calls for fairness and equality in employment decisions, the response of Memphis City Government made it clear that neither measure would pass as proposed.

In reaction to this event, an independent group of LGBT equality advocates organized a March for Gay Rights for National Coming Out Day on October 11. Hundreds of supporters filled Main Street for the march for LGBT rights and rallied in front of City Hall to voice their support to City Leaders. We hope that the call for equality in city employment will be heard.

In the past several months, TEP has continued discussions with city employees about their experiences of workplace discrimination and harassment based on SOGIE. Some disclose unfair treatment in employment decisions. Others describe harassment on the job. Many express a reluctance to come forward to tell their stories for fear of losing their jobs or enduring further harassment. Others say that they will seek employment in the private sector with companies that offer LGBT-inclusive workplace protections if the City won't specifically protect them from discrimination on the job.

All of these factors return us to the point that Memphis is at a crossroads. Memphis cannot afford to send a mixed message to its residents or the rest of the world. Will Memphis be the City of Choice that we've heard so much about? A city that welcomes all people of diverse backgrounds? Or will Memphis choose to send a message of exclusion - a message that diversity, fairness and equality are not valued here. The latter would be a sad reflection on a city with a rich history and legacy in the Civil Rights movement. Has that movement ended? Will Memphis continue to champion the human right to earn a living with respect and dignity?

TEP calls on the Memphis City Council and Mayor Wharton to carefully weigh the options before them. Memphis already has an ordinance that says that permit applications for parades and public assemblies be considered upon their merits and there shall be no discrimination in granting or denying permits based upon political, religious, ethnic, race, disability, sexual orientation or gender-related grounds. With such an ordinance already on the books, enacting workplace legislation that does not include SOGIE specifically would ignore current protections enacted by city leaders in the past in response to historic discrimination. Lack of specific protections for LGBT and straight employees will surely send an unwanted message to the world - a heavy yoke for our city to carry.

The second item on Tuesday's agenda is a resolution calling for an administration review to determine the existence of discrimination in hiring, employment of personnel, and promotion or demotion of city employees because of non-merit factors including but not limited to SOGIE. The companion resolution proposed with the ENDO presents an opportunity and a problem. Such a study could potentially offer more data to illustrate the need for LGBT-inclusive workplace protections.

TEP welcomes efforts to study the problem of unfair discrimination based on non-merit factors. However, TEP has already referenced and provided independent and impartial data collected from both local and national sources to support the claim that discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression is a problem in our community.  City employees have expressed anxiety and fear about coming forward to tell their stories because they have no protection from retaliation on the job should specific protections not be enacted. The studies referenced by TEP were conducted by independent and impartial academic researchers at the University of Memphis and the Williams Institute at UCLA. If the study resolution passes, what measures will be taken to guarantee there is no bias in the collection and reporting of data and that employees will not suffer consequences for participating in the study? Will city employees be able to participate in the study anonymously and confidentially?

If the issue of potential bias and retaliation can be adequately addressed, what will our City Government actually do with the reported data?

Ten years ago, the governments of the City of Memphis and Shelby County commissioned a study returned to leaders of both governments in a report called Technology, Talent, and Tolerance: Attracting the Best and Brightest to Memphis. The purpose of the report was to recommend ways to build a talent-powered economy in our community. Specific recommendations from the report included:
  1. Visibly and officially embrace diversity as an economic and civic development goal that is as good for the whole community as it is for those who are labeled as “minority.”
  2. Expand the definition of diversity as an economic and civic “good” to include all people with talent, whatever their dress, religion, musical tastes, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or country of origin.
  3. Use images of diverse Memphians and their lifestyles in branding and image strategies.
Memphis and Shelby County governments have selectively ignored the recommendations of this report. With this track record, what actions can be expected from a new report?

The City of Memphis could save itself from the cost of new studies and truly make Memphis a City of Choice by enacting specific LGBT-inclusive workplace protections without delay.

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