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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Tale of Two City Councils

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.  - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

The last few years of LGBT advocacy in the struggle for full equality reminded me of this famous opening of the Dickens novel. Nationally and locally, LGBT people and their allies sense that recognition of our most basic human rights is attainable. However, the failed legislative repeal of DADT, no movement on ENDA in Congress or the Memphis Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance, stalled progress on Prop. 8, and the recent suicides of LGBT youth take an emotional toll.

The recent debate of LGBT-inclusive workplace protections in the City of Memphis led me to focus on two stories in the current crisis of suicides among LGBT youth. I share the angst and disappointment in our Memphis City Government in their inability to allow its hard-working employees to earn a living without fear of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Our city's failure to treat its citizens fairly and equally angered so many people that hundreds of equality advocates took to the streets to march and rally in front of City Hall for LGBT rights on National Coming Out  Day on October 11. Such an outward display of frustration and anxiety is appropriate and healthy. My worst fear that some may choose the opposite reaction of internalizing that frustration and anxiety.

Zach Harrington
 In early October, 19-year-old Zach Harrington of Oklahoma completed suicide after attending a contentious hearing of the Norman City Council about a proclamation recognizing October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Month in the city. The resolution passed, but Harrington internalized the toxic hatred expressed by opponents of the proclamation during public debate. The Norman Transcript reported:

One man said he moved to Norman because he thought it was the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms. A woman, who described herself as “bi-racial,” said she was tired of the GLBT plight being compared to Civil Rights.

Some of those who opposed the proclamation claimed that members of the GLBT community would use it to infiltrate the public school system, essentially allowing the “gay lifestyle” to become a part of the curriculum.

Others claimed that council recognizing October as GLBT History Month was a waste of their time. Some members of the audience even suggested that any council members voting in favor of the proclamation may have trouble getting reelected.

Numerous residents also claimed the Bible was their guiding light, citing the ancient text as their primary reason for opposing the proclamation and the GLBT community in general.

And for those in attendance, it was hard to ignore the intolerant grumblings, the exasperated sighs and cold, hard stares that followed comments from supporters of the GLBT proclamation.

Even most council members admitted that a majority of the e-mails and phone calls they fielded regarding the proclamation were against it.
Harrington's family claimed that the hearing pushed Zach over the edge. Zach's parents hope people will think about the things they say in public. Both feel that words can do more than hurt feelings, especially when they come from friends and neighbors.

Ft Worth City Councilman Joel Burns
Within days of Zach's death, a concerned City Councilman of Fort Worth, Texas shared a tearful account of his experience as a bullied school boy. Joel Burns, who is openly gay, opened his remarks by recounting several of the recent cases in which youth across the U.S. had killed themselves after being targeted by anti-gay bullying. Burns was particularly concerned as a local government official about the effect that the toxic debate of the Norman City Council had on a local teen. The local Star-Telegram reported: 

"This bullying and harassment in our schools must stop," Burns said, describing it as an epidemic.

He then recalled his youth in the Fort Worth suburb of Crowley, describing himself as a skinny, sensitive boy who tried to be friendly to all.

In ninth grade, he said, older boys roughed him up, "said I was a faggot and I should die and go to hell where I belonged."

"Ashamed, humiliated and confused, I went home," Burns said. "There must be something very wrong with me, I thought."

After struggling to maintain his composure, Burns, now 40, then addressed himself directly to any gay teens who might see the video.

"You will get out of the household that doesn't accept you. You will get out of that high school, and you don't ever have to deal with those jerks again," he said. "Things will get easier ... Please stick around to make those happy memories for yourself."
Burns calls us all to a spring of hope amidst a winter of despair. His leadership on the Fort Worth City Council serves as a call to action to all local officials who vote on issues that affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Words and actions have consequences. Equality and fairness for all people should be a fairly simple matter, yet LGBT persons continue to struggle for basic human rights in the workplace and elsewhere.

As I dwell on the above Dickens' passage, I wonder openly about what kind of city Memphis wants to be.  I worry about the effect that purveyors of fear and ignorance about LGBT people will have on our city. If fear and ignorance define our city, it will certainly lead to a continued exodus of LGBT people and straight allies in search of communities that welcome people from all walks of life. But for those who cannot leave? Will they internalize the messages they hear from their leaders in self-destructive ways? Where will our Memphis City Council and Mayor lead us? Will Memphis be a city of foolishness, darkness, incredulity, and despair with nothing before us? Or, will Memphis be a city of wisdom, light, belief, and hope where everything is before us?

These are questions worth asking our city leaders as Memphis pursues its quest to become a City of Choice - a city capable of retaining and attracting talented people from diverse backgrounds. If fear and ignorance take precendent over welcoming and embracing all people in Memphis - including LGBT people - Memphis will fail in its quest.

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