Why not? A look at marriage equality in Tennessee
By Brandon Hutchison, President, TEP Foundation
The endorsements of marriage equality by President Barack Obama and the NAACP as well as the setback in North Carolina have brought marriage equality back into focus. A short film released this spring by MTSU professor Dr. Bob Pondillo, The Miracles On Honey Bee Hill, also has raised the question, “What are we doing to achieve marriage equality in Tennessee?” To answer that question, we need a little background to explain the state of marriage equality in Tennessee.
Tennessee’s constitution, similar to that of North Carolina’s (recently amended) and 28 other states, specifically defines marriage as only between one man and one woman. Narrowly defining marriage to heterosexual unions in our state’s constitution was achieved through a lengthy process that culminated in an 81% approval by the voters in November 2006. No state, county or local government agency can recognize, perform, or codify into law a marriage between two people of the same gender--period. Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) was founded in response to the start of the constitutional amendment process to define marriage and waged its largest campaign to date to defeat the amendment at the ballot. Despite these efforts 81% of voters approved of defining marriage as only a heterosexual union in our state’s constitution.
Are we giving up? Is that the end of the story?
The simple answer is “No”. The broader answer includes understanding that a direct attempt to amend the constitution is unlikely in the near term. TEP and TEP Foundation will continue to strive for full relationship recognition equality. However, reality dictates we must respond to the many immediate challenges to the safety, security and basic dignity of LGBT persons in Tennessee. We must focus our efforts and our resources to safeguard our youth, protect the rights we currently have, and expand our rights where we can. In the past six years since the constitution was changed to narrowly define marriage, we have faced daunting attacks through legislation including: bills that would limit a school teacher or staff’s ability to curb anti-LGBTQ bullying, protect hateful, bullying speech in our schools under the guise of protecting religious freedom, require transgender persons to use a public restroom opposite their gender expression, outlaw civil unions or domestic partnership recognition, strip away the ability of an LGBT person to legally adopt, and many more. Last year, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass a law that removes a local government’s ability to require private businesses to not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Tennessee is also the only state that by law does not allow a transgender person to change his/ her sex on a birth certificate. My point is, there are many immediate challenges that must be confronted.
Does that mean we don’t care about marriage equality?
Quite the opposite is true. We want marriage equality in Tennessee as LGBT persons deserve the full benefits and dignity it conveys. We also want our youth to stop choosing suicide as an alternative to being bullied at school and for workers to be able to work without fear of LGBT-biased discrimination. In short, we want to maintain and expand upon the basic level of safety, security and dignity LGBT persons currently have in Tennessee. In our near future, those are the tangible areas where we can make a real difference and we can do it in the short term. Marriage equality, because of the amendment to the constitution, is a long term proposition.
What would it take to achieve full marriage equality in Tennessee?
If we concentrated all our efforts and resources on securing marriage equality in Tennessee today, the earliest opportunity to do so through Tennessee’s constitutional amendment process would be November of 2016. The only legislative way to do so in less than 4 ½ years would be to call a constitutional convention for the purpose of redefining marriage. Even if we could manage to get a majority of Tennessee voters to support marriage equality, the cost of holding a constitutional convention would be discouraging enough to eliminate the majority needed to vote to hold such convention. In addition, the cost of a 4 ½ year fight would likely require $4-6 million to offer a real chance of success. (Those opposed to the amendment in North Carolina spent $3 million and outspent the competition 2-to-1. On election day, they were able to convince only 39% of the population to vote to oppose an amendment which broadly restricted any relationship recognition, including marriage, to a heterosexual union.) Tennessee does not have a record of financially supporting pro-LGBT causes with that kind of investment. I firmly believe if TEP and TEP Foundation could achieve financial support over the next 5 years of just one third of that amount, Tennessee would likely see full employment, housing and public accommodations protections and comprehensive anti-bullying legislation. Knowing this, I personally could not vote as a board member in favor of pursuing the single victory outcome of marriage equality with an under-funded effort when we could seize the opportunity to directly improve the dignity, safety and security of every LGBT person in Tennessee.
Will Tennessee ever achieve equality in our marriage laws?
Yes, we will. And whether that is achieved by amending our constitution once again or by a successful court challenge to invalidate the current language in our state’s constitution, TEP and TEP Foundation will play a determined role in the effort. Until public will shifts more determinately toward demanding marriage equality, we will act responsibly to pursue every avenue to achieve an equal level of safety, security and dignity for all Tennesseans regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. And TEP Foundation will partner with people, like Dr. Pondillo, who has used his unique talent and skill to produce a thought provoking short film in favor of marriage equality. (Check it out www.miraclesonhoneybeehill.com.) This will keep momentum on our side and the public will shifting toward marriage equality.