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.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pictures of a campaign season: TEP hard at work for you

You may have noticed that the Tennessee Equality Project through TEP PAC, our state political action committee, has been working hard for you this fall. We're doing all we can to make sure that we're involved strategically in races that will put us in a better position when the 107th General Assembly of the State of Tennessee convenes in January. Our work is almost done.

But let's rewind and take a look back at the campaign season that was. The endorsements we made are important, but there is so much more to providing the kind of help candidates need than just announcing your support and hoping voters take heed. Here's what we've been doing for the last several weeks.

The Fundraisers: Did you know that since November 2009, TEP PAC has bundled over $12,000 for candidates in state and local races? Money is still part of the game, but we had a lot of fun along the way helping Rep. Jeanne Richardson, Metro Councilman Sam Coleman, and Rep. Sherry Jones and others.

The Yard Signs: It's true that "yard signs don't vote." But in a day when our media don't adequately cover legislative races, they do help remind neighbors of the names when they go into the voting booth. We canvassed our members for "real estate" for candidate yard signs and even helped put them out in yards.

Door Knocking: You really get an education in Tennessee politics when you get in your car and knock on doors in a district for a candidate. The weather was perfect this election season and we had a good time on these road trips. Candidates value the volunteer work and most voters don't seem to mind the momentary interruption.

Dialing for Votes: We did 7 phone banking sessions this season with one more to go on Monday, mostly with the Davidson County Young Democrats, who are great partners. We called hundreds of voters. While not as personal as a door knock, you learn where unions make a difference, who cares about guns, who votes based on political party, and who keeps the yard sign in the garage so it can be put back out every two years.

The end is in sight: We don't know whether we'll be celebrating or commiserating on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, but I can honestly say that we did our part this year and actively worked to elect a better Legislature. We are grateful to all the volunteers who gave their time to support good candidates. It's now up to you get out and VOTE EQUALITY!

-Chris Sanders

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Memphis City Council Committee recommends passage of ENDO and Study Resolution

The Memphis City Council's Personnel, Intergovernmental and Annexation Committee recommended passage of an Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance that includes LGBT-inclusive workplace protections and a Resolution calling for the City of Memphis Department of Human Resources to conduct a study of discrimination based non-merit factors, including sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Council Committee members present at the meeting included sponsor Shea Flinn, Janis Fullilove, Edmund Ford, Jr., and Committee Chairperson Jim Strickland. Council members Bill Morrison and Barbara Swearengen Ware were not present. None of the committee members voted against either the ordinance or resolution.

Councilman Shea Flinn has requested the City's Director of Human Resources to include representives of Tennessee Equality Project and Family Action Council of Tennessee in the development of the study to address concerns about objectivity, impartiality and confidentiality.

The Study Resolution and ENDO will appear on the Nov. 9 agenda of the full Memphis City Council. The study resolution requires only one reading and can be enacting on that day. The ENDO will appear on the Consent Agenda for the first of three readings on Nov. 9. Councilman Flinn plans to request delay of the third reading of the ENDO until the findings of the study are reported back to the Memphis City Council

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.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Last Week before We Know: Final Runup to State Legislative Races

This is it. This is the last week we have before we know what the 107th General Assembly of the State of Tennessee will look like. We won't get another to make a difference.

It's almost too corny to say we stand at a precipice, but I don't really care about how trite the phrase rings right now.

We stand at a precipice.

The 107th General Assembly is being voted in at this moment, with our voices in the process silenced ominously at 7:00 p.m. Central Time on November 2 (unless you happen to be in the voting line right before 7:00, in which case you can stay until you vote, but you know what I mean).

Why does it matter? Everyone in Tennessee ought to know, but not everyone does. To repeat what we've said many times, the 107th General Assembly of the State of Tennessee will redistrict our congressional and legislative districts for the next 10 years!

TEP has been trying to inform our community of this fact for months. Other organizations have been doing the same for their members. The state's two major political parties are certainly aware of the fact. But most of the citizens have no idea that we're locking some things in with this coming election.

Our PAC has been more active in this election than in any other since we were founded. And this week through the last hour on November 2 we will be engaged in a marathon of activities to support our favorite candidates. Whether 2 people show up for any particular event or 50, we're going to fight like never before to play a role in the outcome.

If you're just realizing how important this year's legislative races are or if you've just decided you're going to use this week for all its worth to elect the best Legislature under the circumstances, you're not too late to make a difference.

*Vote if you haven't done so and bring friends to the polls.
*Join us for phonebanking this week and next in Nashville for some great candidates around the State. We'll be making calls into West TN, Knoxville, and Nashville, too. And we could use more voices because some of us are getting hoarse.
*Hold signs at the polls for good candidates to increase visibility.
*Contribute to good campaigns while it will still help them.

If you need help or more information with any of those steps, let us know at .

Do what you can now so that we have no regrets when we wake up on November 3. After that, it's Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and then the new Legislature convenes in Nashville.

There's still time. It's a scary thing not to know what next week holds, but we can still shape the outcome. Let's do it!

-Chris Sanders

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Leadership Vacuum and "Trickle Down" violence against GLBT people

I'm noticing that more commentators are starting to explore the connection between anti-equality rhetoric in the political sphere and the notable cases of GLBT youth suicides due to bullying.

Take this passage from a post at Americablog by Gabriel Arana:

"The real charge is that anti-gay rhetoric in politics has a trickle-down effect that reinforces the type of anti-gay attitudes that make life tough for gay teens. The connection between the work of the National Organization for Marriage and the culture of homophobia that prevails in schools is much less direct, but it exists."

In other words, the aim of anti-equality rhetoric in politics is directly to impede law and policy that would advance civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people; it is not to promote physical violence against us. But physical violence against our community exists and it is worthy of asking whether anti-equality rhetoric in politics is one cause.

So let's look at the situation in Tennessee.

*Vonore, TN fire: I'm not aware of any high-ranking elected official in Tennessee who either uttered words of comfort to Stutte family who recently lost their home to anti-gay arson or made any public condemnation of this violent act. As far as I know, the last time any public official condemned violence that involved our community was when Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam made these remarks about the shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church:

"It is often easy to make these tragic events, which are far too frequent, about the community in which they occur. Knoxville is a caring, compassionate city where diverse viewpoints are shared and respected. Every person, regardless of race, religion, age, sex, or sexual orientation is a person of human dignity and a valued member of our community."

He was prompted to do that, but at least he did it. Others condemned the shooting, but didn't mention our community.

*Lack of positive discourse: Apart from some members of the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, members of the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County, a few state legislators and local school board members, you won't find many elected officials having anything positive to say about legislation that promotes equality in our state. With the exception of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, you won't find anyone in the executive branch of government who is openly supportive.

Instead what you're more likely to find are remarks like these from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey:

“Tennessee has a direct interest in the outcome of this case,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey. “If upheld, it will be used to allow same-sex marriage in Tennessee. Over 80% of Tennessee voters chose to define marriage in our constitution as the union of one man and one woman. Tennessee has an important interest in protecting the ability of our state to define marriage and I strongly urge Attorney General Cooper to join other states fighting for that same right.”

I'd say that Tennessee GLBT and questioning youth are at particular risk because most of the public discussion they hear about themselves from leaders in their communities is of a very similar negative variety. It means their straight peers are absorbing it with the idea that there's something wrong with the GLBT kids. That's a short leap to bullying. We need more community and political leaders to speak out in specific ways for our state's GLBT community.

With particular attention to the Don't Say Gay bill: I shouldn't have to mention it, but I'm going to because it bears most directly upon the issue of bullying GLBT youth--Rep. Stacey Campfield's Don't Say Gay bill. Do I think Rep. Campfield wants youth to take their lives or to be bullied? No, I don't. But I do think his ideology about sexuality and gender makes him utterly and dangerously oblivous to the situation youth find themselves in. And it blinds him to the need for specific protections against the violence they face as well as the specific affirmation they need to overcome the despair that can drive them to take their lives.

Watch these videos again and reflect upon them in light of the youth who have taken their lives. Do I have to hit you over the head with the question: "How long are we going to tolerate legislation like this? When are we going to put this awful bill out of its misery and move on to take positive steps to address bullying and its very specific victims?"

-Chris Sanders

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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Club XYZ in Knoxville target of "suspicious" fire

Club XYZ, a gay bar in Knoxville, TN, was set on fire early Sunday morning. Knoxville Fire Department Capt. D.J. Corcoran characterized the fire as suspicious without saying why.

Suspicion is certainly warranted since this fire follows the terrible blaze that destroyed the Stutte family home less than 40 miles away in Vonore, TN. Arsonists who set fire to the Stutte home spraypainted "queers" on the side of their garage leading many to characterize the heinous act as an anti-gay hate crime.

It's still too early to tell if the fire at Club XYZ is a hate crime. Call the Knoxville Fire and Explosion Unit 865-637-1386 if you have information about a possible cause for the fire.