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, May 7, 2012

Upper Cumberland Pride brings celebratory end to the 107th Tennessee General Assembly

"Your eyes don't deceive you. That's a pride celebration in Cookeville, TN with lots of people." said  Nashville Committee Chair Chris Sanders who reposted this picture on Facebook on Saturday. At least one observer from Cookeville beleieved that as many as 1000 people attended the event over the course of the day. 
The Upper Cumberland Committee provided an absolutely amazing LGBT Pride celebration in Cookeville, Tennessee on Saturday - a perfect end to a week of victories and positive news for LGBT people, their families and their allies in Tennessee. Upper Cumberland Pride which was sponsored by TEP Foundation also brought an inspiring end to the legislative session. Traveling back and forth on the road to Cookeville from my home in Memphis gave me some time to reflect on Tennessee Equality Project's efforts to advance and protect the rights of LGBT people and their families in state government. I'm pleased to share that with few exceptions we've done well for Tennessee during the last 5 months of the legislative session

Several members of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly promoted legislation with a far-right social agenda that attacked LGBT people and contradicted conservative ideals of smaller government. Much of that legislation focused "below the belt."

Police the Potty Bill Flushed!

The session began with the "Police the Potty" bill (HB2279) which would have criminalized the use of public restrooms and dressing rooms by transgender people. Rep. Richard Floyd threatened to "stomp a mudhole" through any transgender person he found in a restroom. Public pressure compelled the Senate sponsor to withdraw his version of the bill (SB2282). I can’t remember a lawmaker having this much concern about what’s happening in the stall next to him since Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s infamous troubles in a Minneapolis Airport men’s room. Tennessee Equality Project quickly responded against this bill along with Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and other allies. No other Senator was willing to file a companion bill, so the legislation could not advance. The death of this bill was our first victory of the session but other lawmakers continued to obsess over what happens below the belt until the end of the session.

It's Still Okay to Say GAY! in Tennessee

Two bills with a rather prurient interest in sex education in public schools advanced this session, but only one passed both houses of the legislature. The "No Hand Holding" bill (HB3621/SB3310) which prohibited the teaching of something called "gateway sexual activity" in public education sought to leave Tennessee's youth with no information about how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases should they become sexually active. By shifting the emphasis of sex education to "abstinence only," students and parents will now have to go outside public schools for accurate information about vital, life-saving strategies for good health. Tennessee parents deserve more sex education options to choose from in public schools for their children. While the "No Hand Holding" bill became law, other efforts to redefine sex education failed. 

Stacey Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill (HB0229/SB0049) passed in the Senate last year and re-appeared on the agenda in the State House this year. In its amended form, the bill would have banned "classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction" in grades K-8. Tennessee Equality Project fought hard against this bill with a multi-pronged approach that included professional lobbying, mass media, and YouTube videos made by students, parents and educators, visits with lawmakers, attendance at House committee hearings, phone calls, emails, and letters. Our lobbying strategy significantly reduced lawmakers' desire to vote on this bill. But they were also affected, as we all were, by the news of two gay students in Tennessee who completed suicided after enduring anti-gay bullying in school. Many conservative lawmakers began to realize that marginalizing LGBT students with anti-gay and anti-trans legislation would only increase the incidence of bullying in public schools. 

Despite opposition from Governor Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and other House leadership, Rep. Joey Hensley (HB0229's sponsor) continued to push his bill forward in the House. HB0229 advanced with close margins in the House Education Subcommittee and House Education Committee before landing in the House Calendar and Rules Committee. Lawmakers who wanted no part in voting on this legislation never scheduled HB0229 for a floor vote before the House of Representatives adjourned for the year. This victory was hard to win and would not have been possible without the efforts of people like you.

Special Rights for Bullies Defeated!

Many of our supporters will recall the  "License to Bully" bill that appeared early in the session with the full backing of Family Action Council of Tennessee. David Fowler sought to write special protections into state law for students who harassed, intimidated or bullied fellow students based on their "expression of religious, philosophical, or political views." Early in the session, Tennessee Equality Project observed that lawmakers were attempting to place students in double jeopardy with the License to Bully and Don't Say Gay bills. "Students with an anti-gay bias would be free and encouraged to bully LGBTQ students, and teachers and other school staff would be prohibited from speaking about the issue."  The same TEP lobbying strategy used against the Don't Say Gay bill helped keep the License to Bully bill from advancing in the legislature.  Another victory for safe schools and equality in Tennessee!

Gay-Straight Alliances are Here to Stay in Tennessee

Tennessee Equality Project can also declare a victory in protecting the status of Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools throughout the state. In a past legislative session, Sen. Stacey Campfield targeted GSAs by introducing a bill requiring all students to obtain permission to participate in school clubs and activities. The bill would have placed many LGBT or questioning students at risk by forcing them to "come out" to their parents before participating in their school's Gay-Straight Alliance. Schools faced a potential nightmare in trying to manage all the permission slips for students participating in Spanish Club, the Thespian Society, the football team, cheer leading squad. etc. Tennessee Equality Project intervened by persuading the House sponsor to amend the language of the bill (HB2548/SB2488). Rather than require parents to "opt in" their children for school activities and clubs, the bill would give parents the opportunity to "opt out" their children from participating in school activities and clubs. The bill which passed into law essentially maintains the status quo by reinforcing the right of parents to balance their children's extracurricular activities with academic achievement.

Governor Bill Haslam Stands Up to Bullies in His Own Party

We can declare another victory with an education bill vetoed by Governor Bill Haslam. Your calls to the Governor helped give him the extra push he needed. The Governor announced last Wednesday that he would veto the "Anti-All Comers" bill that targeted Vanderbilt University's inclusive non-discrimination policy:
Although I disagree with Vanderbilt’s policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution.
Supporters of the bill feared that Christian student organizations might elect someone into a leadership position who didn't hold the same beliefs as their group (e.g., LGBT people, Muslims, Jews, atheists, etc.). In reality, Haslam had to veto the amended form of HB3576/SB3597. Last year, he signed HB600/SB632 into law which forbade local governments from enacting laws which extended nondiscrimination provisions to private businesses that exceeded protections defined in state or federal law. The bill overturned a Nashville ordinance protecting LGBT employees of private contractors doing business with local government. Signing HB3576/SB3597 into law would have been a clear argument that Tennessee State Government was not concerned with preventing government interference in private business. Haslam really had no choice but to veto this bill in order to maintain the facade that the his party is the protector of private business' ability to make their own policies.

While Haslam can claim a consistent political philosophy, David Fowler and the Family Action Council of Tennessee cannot. Isn't it interesting that Family Action Council of Tennessee pushed the state legislature to enact HB600/SB632 with a pro-business argument, but pushed HB3576/SB3597 with a pro-religious arguments? With these two bills and the License to Bully bill (HB2548/SB2488), FACT tried to create special rights to discriminate against LGBT for people of faith. We can expect FACT to keep trying this "pro-business" approach in the 108th Tennessee General Assembly.

Knoxville Sends a Clear Message to Stacey Campfield

The prize for most inspiring good news last week goes to the City of Knoxville for enacting an ordinance protecting city employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity or disability (characteristics missing from the previous law on the books). Senator Stacey Campfield can't get a break. His Don't Say Gay bill lost, he can't find a restaurant that will serve him in his home town, and he won't find anyone in Knoxville City Government who agrees with his bigotry toward LGBT people (The Knoxville City Council enacted the nondiscrimination ordinance with a unanimous vote). Time to take a hint Senator.

Tennesseans Value Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

The movement for equality and inclusion of LGBT people and their families is gaining ground in Tennessee. It's hard to realize sometimes when you consider the forces of opposition inside and outside our current government. I am persuaded that Tennesseans in the not-so-distant future will look back on the 107th General Assembly and shake their heads in wonderment. "What were they thinking?" they'll ask.

I am confident in my optimism after attending last Saturday's pride event in Cookeville.  Knowing the organizers of the Upper Cumberland Committee as I do, I fully expected to see a good turnout at Dogwood Park for Upper Cumberland Pride. What I encountered was a groundswell of people hungry for change in the rural Upper Cumberland Region of our state. Equality, diversity and inclusion aren't just big city values; they are Tennessee values that are here to stay.

- Jonathan Cole

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Nashville's Dean says that social legislation affects the business climate

In an interview with The City Paper, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean noted that when businesses consider Nashville, they sometimes have concerns about the social legislation coming from the Tennessee General Assembly.  He contrasts that socially conservative agenda at the state level with the commitment to non-discrimination in Metro Nashville:

You mentioned fielding calls from other cities and people checking out Nashville and how hot it is. When you’re fielding those calls, do you ever hear, “Gee, we’d love to come down, all this social agenda legislation is worrying us.” Do they ever say, “What the hell is going on with the legislature in Tennessee?”
Dean: I won’t mention names, I’m not really at liberty to mention it, but there have been companies who have actually come here who have heard about some of the social legislation and expressed concern. My position has always been, particularly in the area of nondiscrimination, that that absolutely shoots us in the foot. Particularly if you’re a cultural city and an artistic city and a university city. I think Nashville stands on its own. I think people look at Nashville and know that it’s different. Cities have to be friendly, which we are. Cities have to be inclusive, which I think we are, and we try to get more and more inclusive. That’s the way government in cities should operate. But I have heard it. The business [in question] came.

I wonder whether the business-friendly Legislature will get the message.  More correctly, I wonder what it will take for the Legislature to get the message that restrictive social legislation is unattractive for business growth and development.  To give credit, some legislators from both parties do, but not nearly enough.

Until the Legislature gets the message, it will be important for more cities to pass inclusive non-discrimination ordinances like Knoxville and Metro Nashville.  But at some point, we need a fundamental change at the state level.  Corporations are going to have to add their voices to the national media and equality advocates in Tennessee if that is going to take place.  Let's hope it does.

-Chris Sanders

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thanks Speaker Harwell, Rep. Maggart and Gov. Haslam

House Speaker Beth Harwell, Republican Caucus Chair Rep. Debra Maggart and Governor Bill Haslam
Tennessee Equality Project was one of the last organizations to formally declare the defeat of the Don't Say Gay bill (HB0229/SB0049). After fighting many bills in the legislature over the years, we've learned that anything can happen in the last days of the legislative session - especially when the rules of the House or Senate are suspended to facilitate the legislative process. Until a motion to adjourn is approved and the final gavel is heard, every bill is technically still alive.

We've fought the Don't Say Gay bill for six long years. This year, the bill met its surest defeat in the 107th Tennessee General Assembly. After enduring years of negative media attention, the ire of constituents and the sobering incidents of two gay Tennessee students completing suicide after being bullied, no sensible person wanted to see this legislation advance. We also realize that Senate sponsor Stacey Campfield or House sponsor Joey Hensley could reintroduce the bill when the 108th Tennessee General Assembly convenes. We will be ready if they do.

In yesterday's message to our supporters, we thanked many people for their vigilance in opposing this anti-LGBT legislation. But also owe thanks to three leaders in State Government who took a stand against extremism in their own party.

We give special thanks House Speaker Beth Harwell, Republican House Caucus Chair Rep. Debra Maggart and Governor Bill Haslam. Each of these individuals did their part in preventing a mean-spirited bill from marginalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and families in Tennessee schools.

Take a moment to send a thank you note to these leaders. Without them, we would not have defeated this bill.