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, March 29, 2011

Need a second of your time

In today's House Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, Rep. Jeanne Richardson of Memphis had scheduled HB0187, a bill that would repeal Tennessee's current Draconian law prohibiting the amendment of gender on birth certificates. Modern medical science reveals that doctors make mistakes when assigning gender to newborns that can have chaotic and challenging consequences later in life.

Because of current Tennessee  law, transgender citizens cannot accurately reflect their gender on basic identifying documents like driver's licenses, passports and other official documents like a job application that refer back to an individual's birth certificate. This presents problems when performing tasks that require legally recognized identification such as voting, boarding an airplane, passing through security when entering government buildings to speak with your elected officials, or simply ordering a beer at a restaurant.

The State of Tennessee currently requires its transgender citizens who have the misfortune to be born here to lie about their identity on official documents. State-sanctioned falsification of identity creates a number of social, economic and legal problems for transgender citizens to the point of undermining basic human dignity. While this issue may affect a small number of vulnerable citizens in Tennessee, such brazen targeting of a minority in current law leaves our state vulnerable too. The real harm that current law brings to transgender citizens boosts the argument that state law creates a suspect class of citizens protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Tennessee is a sitting duck for a class action lawsuit against the state for targeting a distinct group of citizens for discrimination.

Many thanks to Rep. Jeanne Richardson (D) for sponsoring this bill to repeal current law, Rep. Mike Turner (D) for agreeing to move the the bill for discussion, and to Subcommittee Chair Matthew Hill (R) for allowing a fair hearing of the bill. Unfortunately, the list of those to thank is embarrassingly short. Richardson was forced to take the bill off notice in subcommittee today becuase no one else on the subcommittee, Republican or Democrat, would commit to offer a second on Rep. Turner’s motion. Some of the members of this committee have enjoyed the support of LGBT constituents - which is why this outcome is such a disappointment.

Let’s face it. The birth certificate bill has an uphill climb in this conservative legislature. The best we could hope for was real discussion about it in the legislature to promote awareness of current injustice, but our friends in the House would not even step up to allow that.

Progressive voices are a small group in this General Assembly - the smallest it’s ever been. The reality is that progressives on the Hill have little ground left to lose. And they can't really afford to alienate friends and allies. Which begs the question: when progressives in the legislature need our help, will we have a second?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sweetwater, TN Housing Authority official compares LGBT families to criminals

New evidence of troubling homophobia, transphobia, and racism surfaced in East Tennessee over the weekend.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development published new rules for equal access to housing in HUD Programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families last January.  The new rules included a request for comment and assistance from the public to “help the Department in its effort to craft regulations that will effectively ensure access to HUD programs by all eligible persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Within days, the Executive Director of the Sweetwater Housing Authority in Monroe County, Tennessee, Vicki Barnes, mailed a letter to the Department. Barnes objected to the new regulation’s definition of “family” writing that it would lead to program abuse. Barnes claimed:
This is not a matter of discrimination. In choosing to name a group of people such as the Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), you are choosing to group together a group of people who are not of the same race but have made a personal and moral life style choice. Other groups who make a personal lifestyle choice are drug users and sellers, gang members, prostitutes, cults, and murderers.
Rather than follow the Department’s request to help ensure that LGBT people face no discrimination in HUD programs, Barnes used the opportunity to compare LGBT people and their families to criminals. Additionally, she also implied that people of different races should not be considered a family.

Barnes’ response to the Department ‘s new rules raises questions about her ability as Executive Director of the Sweetwater Housing Authority to fairly apply the new and preexisting rules. Housing discrimination based on race was outlawed long ago.  Is Barnes ignoring or encouraging discrimination in housing programs for couples and families of mixed races? What about veritable lifestyle choices like religion? Can the people of Sweetwater be guaranteed equal access to HUD programs regardless of their faith tradition?

Barnes also took it upon herself to speak for landlords participating in Sweetwater’s Section 8 Rental Assistance Programs writing that they “will choose not be bullied into housing people who have chosen a lifestyle, which goes against their moral conviction, or groups of people who will damage their property.” Does Barnes realize that she’s insulted Sweetwater’s  Section 8 landlords? She essentially put in writing that 
Sweetwater’s landlords are bigots who share her prejudiced view of law abiding families who simply want to ensure they have a roof over their heads.

How systemic is homophobia in Monroe County?

Sweetwater is less than 50 miles from Vonore in Monroe County where a lesbian couple and their family suffered a horrible hate crime more than six months ago. Carol Ann and Laura Stutte believe that their home was burned to the ground by a next-door neighbor who had threatened their lives and property. The word “QUEERS” was spray painted on the wall of a structure near the ashes of their home. The Stutte’s continue to suffer the consequences of this crime. They must pay the mortgage on their burned home and premiums to the American National Property and Casualty Insurance company that has yet to honor their commitment to investigate and process the family’s claim. The FBI has still not completed their investigation of the hate crime.

The hate crime committed against the Stuttes and Barnes’ January letter point to a systemic problem of homophobia and transphobia in Monroe County. As law enforcement authorities in Monroe County, the FBI and the Stutte’s insurance company drag their feet, they are sending the message that Monroe County condones lawlessness and bigotry.

US Census Data show that at least 54 same-sex couples reside in Monroe County (0.35%). Vicki Barnes’s letter puts these families on notice that they should not expect fair and equal treatment from Sweetwater Housing Authority programs. The new HUD rules are sorely needed in Sweetwater and Monroe County. Can Vicki Barnes be trusted to abide by them?

If law abiding citizens like the Stuttes and consumers of Sweetwater HUD programs cannot expect fair and equal treatment from the public officials, landlords and businesses who serve them, these officials should be fully investigated and disciplined. 

- Jonathan Cole

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

TEP celebrates the retreat of the "Special Access to Discriminate" Act

LGBT-inclusive workplace protections
may still expand in Tennessee.
Tennessee Equality Project celebrates today’s action in the House Subcommittee on Commerce. The “Special Access to Discriminate” Act (HB0598) was taken off notice today for lack of support among members of the subcommittee.

For the moment, this withdrawal means that state government will not be intruding in the contractual affairs of local government in Tennessee. Cities, counties and school boards rightfully remain free to define what is best for their communities in expanding workplace equality, living wages and other employee benefits without BIG government interference from the state.

TEP applauds the coordinated efforts of equality, labor, and municipal government advocates who helped bring about this bill’s retreat. However, we are not our of the woods yet. Bill sponsor Glen Casada told The Tennessean that 
he plans to put the bill back on notice in about two weeks and will use the interim to lobby opponents (he named Cordova lawmakers Steve McManus and Dennis Roach, specifically) to vote for the bill.
While today's withdrawal is a joyous event, we must be vigilant in making sure that this bill does not return while the 107th General Assembly is in session. We must also support the CAN DO ordinance headed for final reading by the Nashville Metro Council on Tuesday, April 5

Celebrate the withdrawal of this bill by making a contribution to Tennessee Equality Project so that we may continue to advance and protect the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our state. Consider that

  • $25 prints 100 brochures/membership forms
  • $50 allows us to reach over 120 voters with a mailing
  • $100 trains 10 volunteers for lobbying their elected officials on GLBT issues
  • $250 creates 100 folders for advocates at Advancing Equality on the Hill each year
  • $500 pays for participating in events such as pride festivals in communities throughout the state
  • $1,000 provides seed money for 4 house parties to reach the community and raise more money
  • $2000 allows us to purchase better technology services to build and mobilize supporters for six months
While some of the above advocacy expenses may be more than many can afford, we all have like-minded friends and family who want to help advocate for equality in our home state. Consider forming a Host Committee with them for a House Party to raise awareness about LGBT equality initiatives like the above bill and raise funds to further the work of TEP. Learn more about House Parties here.

- Jonathan Cole

Monday, March 14, 2011

Become a grassroots leader for equality in Tennessee

Open your home and invite your
friends to a House Party for TEP
Tennessee Equality Project is partnering with people like you across the state to host house parties to raise money, volunteers and awareness about the struggle for equality. We need to spread the word that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people deserve the same chance to earn a living, be safe in their communities, serve their community, and take care of the ones they love.

Become a grass roots leader among equality advocates in your community by hosting a House Party for TEP. Each one of us has friends and/or family who will support us in this effort. Let's draw upon them to form Host Committees and transform Tennessee from one end of the state to the other.

Plan your event before the legislature ends its session in late spring and choose one or more of the bills that TEP is currently tracking in the state legislature as a focus. Tennessee Equality Project is supporting positive legislation in the 107th Tennessee General Assembly that would:

  • Strengthen anti-bullying initiatives in Tennessee’s K-12 schools
  • Repeal a current state law which prohibits amendment of gender on birth certificates
  • Add gender identity or expression to current State hate crime law
  • Add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to current human rights law
TEP is also opposing negative bills in this legislative session that would:

  • Ban local governments from enacting non-discrimination provisions for their communities
  • Prohibit age-appropriate discussion and materials about homosexuality in public schools
  • Provide special protections for school bullying based on religious or political bias.

Be creative. Whether your event is large or small, we can all do our part to support the advancement and protection of equality of LGBT people and their families in Tennessee. 

To learn more about hosting a House Party in your community, review Tennessee Equality Project's House Party Kit or contact Jonathan Cole at or 901-301-3306 for more information.