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.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TEP treasurer Wes Aull considering Metro Council bid

The Tennessean and their political blog In Session are reporting that Wes Aull is considering entering the race to replace 5th District Metro Nashville Councilman Jamie Hollin who has announced he is not seeking reelection.

Aull serves as treasurer of the Tennessee Equality Project and is a CPA who works in the 5th district. He is also an active member of the Historic East Nashville Merchants Association.

Exciting news!

-Chris Sanders

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 10 political stories affecting TN's GLBT community

The Memphis Flyer and Out & About Newspaper have published helpful lists of top stories affecting Tennessee's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community in 2010. So I wanted to take a look at the top 10 political stories affecting us. Here are my views in no particular order:

*The first two are national in scope, but they're important for those of us in Tennessee.

  1. Equality in Hospital Visitation. In April President Obama signed a memorandum directing Health & Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation based on sexual orientation or gender identity in facilities that participate in Medicare or Medicaid.
  2. Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (almost). The House and Senate passed a stand-alone bill repealing the military's outdated Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy this month. It will take effect once a few sign-offs take place.
  3. Violence. Hate crimes in Tennessee based on sexual orientation were down in 2009 according to a May 2010 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report. The document still fails to include hate crimes based on gender identity. Despite the 2009 statistics, 2010 brought some ugly incidents such as hate-motivated arson of a lesbian couple's house in Vonore and the Jackson Police Department's treatment of transgender woman Akasha Adonis after she was brutalized at Kohl's.
  4. Failure of the Don't Say Gay bill. This discriminatory, needless piece of state legislation met its Waterloo yet again this year after a few sneak attacks.
  5. Failure of the Memphis Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance TWICE! Sadly a majority of the members of the Memphis City Council couldn't agree that city employees should be able to work in an environment free of discrimination.
  6. Elections. It would be tempting to leave it at that. But I want to hit some of the low moments. The ugly comments by 8th congressional district candidate Ron Kirkland about gay people in the military, the short-lived almost New York Senate candidacy of Harold Ford Jr. that got derailed in part over his evolving views of marriage equality, a Tennessee House candidate writing children's books against marriage equality, 5th congressional district candidate David Hall's anti-equality push polling, and so on.
  7. Oak Ridge goes G, L, and B, but not T. One surprise (to me) is that Oak Ridge voters decided to amend their charter in November to prohibit discrimination against city employees based on sexual orientation. It is a lost opportunity that gender identity was not also included in the measure.
  8. Metro Nashville Human Relations Commission empowered to document gender identity discrimination. Earlier this year, TEP requested that Council Members seek a legal opinion clarifying whether the Metro Human Relations Commission has the authority to document discrimination in the private sector based on gender identity. A 2003 legal opinion had already established similar authority with respect to sexual orientation. We are pleased that the answer is YES. We hope the Commission embraces its authority and that victims report discrimination.
  9. Nancy VanReece announces Metro Nashville Council bid. Nancy VanReece announced this year that she will be seeking the 4th district Metro Council seat. Go, Nancy!
  10. Belmont. The termination of Belmont University's soccer coach Lisa Howe has turned national media attention on Nashville and not in a way we would have liked. This event, along with other cases of discrimination against faculty and students that have come to light, has triggered many proposed political remedies. To clarify Metro Nashville Government's position, Mayor Karl Dean called on city boards, commissions, and authorities to update their non-discrimination policies; Council Members Jamie Hollin and Mike Jameson filed a bill to revoke Belmont's Rose Park lease with Metro unless and until they updated their non-discrimination policy (a bill which has been deferred indefinitely); and a bill has been proposed that would require vendors contracting with Metro to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination policies. It remains to be seen whether Belmont will ever get beyond its public assurances and adopt such a written policy.
There they are. What are your top 10 political stories of 2010?

-Chris Sanders

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day Edition : Deserved Praise and Questionable Blame

Calendar Notes: It's Boxing Day. Of course, it's Sunday, too. So I'm not sure whether those in the former British Empire get tomorrow off or not. But here's hoping they do. It's also St. Stephen's Day or the Feast of Stephen--you remember, the day that prompted Good King Wenceslas to look out "when the snow lay round about/ Deep and crisp and even." Seems fitting for today.

Praise: Speaking of good, there's a great piece in today's Commercial Appeal titled "12 Who Made a Difference." And one of them is TEP's own chairman Jonathan Cole.

Cole said one of the things the group has been successful at is "engaging the GLBT community in a more formal way in the political process.

"If we don't send a message to our local leaders, then we can't expect leaders we send to Washington to express those same values."

The list of cities more progressive than Memphis on GLBT issues is long, but Cole is staying put.

"Do I ever want to give up? I will take breaks, but I don't feel I need to throw up my hands yet," he said.

The fight for equality "is not for summer soldiers and the sunshine patriots. It's a commitment for the long haul."

Amen to that!

Blame?: In my view, there's been some odd criticism of some folks who have been great supporters of equality legislation in Nashville.

Let's start with yesterday's Tennessean. It included a piece about 18th District Councilwoman Kristine LaLonde and her role in the Belmont University controversy. LaLonde was a cosponsor of the 2009 Metro non-discrimination ordinance She has spoken about the conversations occurring inside Belmont to make the campus more welcoming. As a faculty member she is a voice for equality. We shouldn't forget that it was the faculty resolutions on this issue that prompted trustee emeritus Mike Curb to get involved in the matter. If the Belmont Board of Trustees is going to make a change, it will require concerted action from the faculty and from benefactors like Mike Curb to move things along. So while I understand the source of the questions that some have raised, I would hate for people to lose sight of the factors that will actually bring change to Belmont and the role LaLonde is playing. Besides, the bill revoking Belmont's Rose Park lease has been deferred indefinitely, so that piece of the puzzle is a moot point now.

My thoughts would be along the same lines with respect to Mayor Karl Dean. The Mayor just recently sent a letter to boards, commissions, and authorities asking them to update their non-discrimination policies to match's Metro's in response to the inflammatory comments by the Belmont board chair/Convention Center Authority chair. The Convention Center Authority has already updated its policy. However, there have been a few complaints that the Mayor should have taken this action in 2009. Sure, and why not long before that, for that matter? But here's the thing. When we were working with the Mayor and allied Council Members on the non-discrimination ordinance, we asked for a very focused ordinance that would have impact and pass. No one in 2009 talked about the boards, commissions, and authorities. We either assumed the ordinance would cover those bodies or it didn't occur to us. In 2009 the Mayor and allied Council Members did everything they were asked to do in supporting the bill. That includes speaking publicly for it, working on strategy for it, voting for it, signing it, and implementing it. It is the first law of its kind in Tennessee and it happened because people worked together like a symphony.

It's going to be tough to pass something like the bill requiring vendors contracting with Metro Government to have an inclusive non-discrimination policy if we aren't focused on keeping our friends from the 2009 effort motivated to stick together. After a snowy holiday, let's get back to work on making something positive happen.

-Chris Sanders

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Truce: Rose Park lease bill deferred to give Belmont more time

The holidays have come as they always do to Metro. The tree outside the Courthouse in full array was a wonderful sight for all the visitors in festive red making their way inside the building. Christmas get-ups? Nope. "Save My Fairgrounds" supporters in red t-shirts, but it somehow still fit the occasion.

After a long discussion about when to have a public hearing on fairgrounds issues, BL2010-823 came up. It would revoke Belmont's Rose Park lease unless and until Belmont makes some changes to its non-discrimination policy. Sponsors Mike Jameson and Jamie Hollin agreed to defer the bill indefinitely so that the Belmont community could have time to deal with that matter. Today's Tennessean perhaps gave a hint of things to come in an extensive interview with Belmont President Bob Fisher who appears to be attempting to make change. Until sexual orientation and gender identity are included in Belmont's written policy, the job will not be done in TEP's view. But it looks as if there is some positive movement.

In speaking on the deferral, Councilman Jameson previewed the other bill that he, Councilman Holllin, and Councilwoman Erica Gilmore (and hopefully additional sponsors) are introducing in January--a bill that would require vendors contracting with Metro Government to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination policies.

Legitimate, reasonable way forward: This bill offers Metro the opportunity to bolster its commitment to equality and diversity and to do so through a legitimate point of connection with the private sector--its contracting dollars. Opponents will look at the bill as "imposing" something on the private sector. But in our view, no one is forced to compete for Metro contracts. It's a privilege and all contracting procedures list standards. There's no reason that equal opportunity employment shouldn't be considered as one of those standards. It's reasonable that Metro tax dollars should achieve the added benefit of equal opportunity while meeting the basic needs of providing services. Furthermore, many companies have already adopted these protections. So would the burden be that great, after all?

Timing is everything: The fact that Metro elections are just around the corner makes the issue sensitive to many. We certainly wouldn't have chosen this time for the bill to come forward, but the situation at Belmont has made clear to the public that discrimination on the job still occurs. And it's hard to say whether the next Metro Council will be as progressive as the current one. So while many will argue that the timing isn't great, it's hard to argue for putting off dealing with discrimination. At least, we hope it will be. Time will tell. So we'll come back from the holiday truce and see whether Metro has the will to move forward. Nothing is certain at this point.

-Chris Sanders

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"What does that say about Tennessee?"

Late yesterday I gave three interviews to the Nashville media about the Senate's vote on repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. When the topic of the NO votes of Tennessee's Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Bob Corker came up, two of the reporters asked me,

"What does that say about Tennessee?"

That's the question a lot of us have been asking over the last couple of years as Tennessee's elected officials have said and done so many things that make us wonder just who is welcome here.

But I got to thinking that if two reporters who don't spend 24/7 thinking about equality issues could independently ask me that question, do all of us who care about our state and its leadership need to be asking that question more often and raising the volume?

I think the question is particularly acute in Nashville right now because so many of us are embarrassed at how Belmont University is handling issues of discrimination against faculty, staff, and students on campus. More than a few straight allies have said something like this to me: "Right now the national media is looking at Nashville through the lens of Belmont."

Nashville isn't alone. Many residents of Memphis have been exasperated at Mayor A.C. Wharton's trumpeting of "City of Choice" rhetoric while the City Council has failed twice to pass a basic non-discrimination ordinance. Instead the city opted to hire an image manager.

We don't need image managers. We don't need to focus primarily on the talk outside the state. We need to stop letting our elected officials get away with doing and saying stupid, harmful things. And if that means USING what the rest of the country thinks about Tennessee as a gong, so be it. But the goal is (a) stopping the negatives and (b) starting to build up positive public policy. Then image will take care of itself. If the goal is complaining, then we won't get very far.

-Chris Sanders

Friday, December 17, 2010

Convention Center Authority adopts non-discrimination policy

TEP treasurer Wes Aull, who was present for this morning's meeting of the Convention Center Authority, reports that the body adopted a non-discrimination policy that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity. He reports a unanimous vote on the second item of the agenda.

The Authority's action followed Mayor Karl Dean's request that all Metro boards, commissions, and authorities adopt such policies.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

House passes Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal: How TN delegation voted

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to repeal the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy by a vote of 250 to 175.

Voting for repeal were Congressmen Steve Cohen, Jim Cooper, and Bart Gordon.

Voting against repeal were Congressmen Marsha Blackburn, Lincoln Davis, John Duncan, Phil Roe, and John Tanner. Congressman Zach Wamp is listed as not voting.*

Note: Marsha Blackburn prefers "Congressman" so we're honoring her general request to the media that she be noted as such.

Monday, December 13, 2010

TEP requests Council Committees review aspects of relationship with Belmont

The following is a letter sent this morning to the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County concerning the ongoing concerns about discrimination at Belmont University:

December 13, 2010

Dear Members of the Metropolitan Council:

We join many citizens of Nashville in expressing concern over reports of discrimination against members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community at Belmont University.

· The widely reported termination of women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe when it was revealed that she and her partner are having a child

· Denial of official recognition to Bridge Builders, a student group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and their allies

· The rescinding of a tenure-track position to instructor Rebecca Chapman

· A November Washington Blade story about award-winning singer-songwriter Levi Kreis recounting discrimination as a student .

Belmont University is a private university and its board of trustees must determine which policies and practices best fit its mission, even as we hope to see policy change at this important Nashville institution. But we believe it is imperative that the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County not entangle itself in situations that may give rise to discrimination. Relationships with private entities or individuals should not compromise the principle of equal opportunity that has been reaffirmed many times by the Metropolitan Government.

We do not seek new legislation or, at this point, any alteration in the city’s relationships with Belmont. We seek clarity and accountability with respect to the city’s relationship with Belmont and its key officials.

Therefore, we request that the Metropolitan Council’s

· Convention, Tourism and Public Entertainment Facilities Committee discuss with the chairman of the Convention Center Authority, who is also chairman of the Belmont University board of trustees, whether his publicly expressed views about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people will inhibit his ability to represent Nashville as a welcoming city in which to do business

· Personnel, Public Information, Human Relations, Housing Committee hold a hearing with the chairman of the Convention Center Authority, who is chairman of the Belmont University board of trustees, to determine whether his publicly expressed views about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people inhibit his ability to uphold the 2009 ordinance that forbids discrimination against Convention Center Authority employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Questions should be raised about his awareness of and assent to the law, as well as the chairman’s role in the hiring, evaluation, promotion, and discipline of Convention Center Authority employees

· Parks, Library, and Recreation Committee determine whether the Rose Park relationship brings the risk of discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in the provision of services. The space is to be used for athletics, an area of the university’s life that has received significant negative attention in the national media. The Metropolitan Government should assure the public that this important relationship will not implicate our city in further detrimental incidents.

We are grateful for your service to Nashville and we hope that you will seek information that will be valuable in assuring our fellow citizens that the Metropolitan Government is acting conscientiously to avoid any arrangement that enables discrimination.


H.G. Stovall, President

Chris Sanders, Chair, Nashville Committee

P.O. Box 330895

Nashville, TN 37203

Saturday, December 11, 2010

It's up to us to talk about gender identity when Belmont comes up...and every time!

Have you been reading and listening carefully to the reports and statements about discrimination at Belmont University? If you have, you might have noticed that there's a lot of talk about sexual orientation but there needs to be more discussion of gender identity.

When the topic comes up, it's up to you and me to make sure gender identity is included in the discussion.

Guess what! There's a great word that can help--AND. That simple conjunction has the power to make our movement inclusive. "Sexual orientation AND gender identity"--see, it's easy.

Why it's important: Transgender people experience an unusually high level of discrimination and violence in our society. We all know that. The trick is to remember it every time we're talking about changing a policy. Adding just sexual orientation doesn't protect transgender people. Here's an axiom of activism: If you don't ask specifically for something (namely, the inclusion of gender identity), you have almost no chance of getting it. So ask for it!

I want to reiterate what TEP said in our statement on Monday:

"Therefore, we call on the Belmont University board of trustees to reconsider these actions and to amend their policies to protect staff, faculty, and students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity."

There's not a superfluous word in that sentence. We think the policy change should protect faculty, staff, and students and it should include both sexual orientation AND gender identity. If we as a community are not united in calling for every bit of that, people who need protection will be left out. And that's not acceptable.

Are you willing to use the word AND to make a difference?

-Chris Sanders

Monday, December 6, 2010

TEP calls on Belmont Board to change policy, for statewide dialogue on amending TN Human Rights Act

Many of you have heard about the termination of Lisa Howe, Belmont University's women's soccer coach. Some reports say she resigned, others that she was fired after she revealed to university officials that she and her partner are going to have a child. Students at Belmont, including members of the women's soccer team, have stated publicly that Coach Howe was asked to resign or fired. Adding to the confusion, Belmont's own statements on the matter have changed in light of the public outcry.

As the law stands, Belmont has the right to take any of these actions. But having the legal right to do something doesn't make it right or prudent. Belmont's actions are embarrassing for Tennessee. They do not express a true commitment to diversity and they fall short of the marks of an institution of higher learning. Discrimination shows a reckless disregard for the lives of those it affects. It is particularly cruel and repugnant to terminate a talented, winning coach who has earned the loyalty of her players when she is about to start a family at a time when jobs are scarce.

Therefore, we call on the Belmont University board of trustees to reconsider these actions and to amend their policies to protect staff, faculty, and students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

This incident is also a painful reminder that the Tennessee Human Rights Act lacks protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. The people of our state need to begin a serious dialogue about amending the Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Many leading employers in Tennessee have already added these protections to their policies including the following: the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Board of Regents schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Volkswagen, AT&T, Bank of America, SunTrust, Dell, OfficeMax, FedEx, Caterpillar, UPS, etc.

Tennessee can only move forward when we truly value the merit and talent of our workforce. That won't happen until employees can work without fearing discrimination and that includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Thank you,

H.G. Stovall

Thursday, December 2, 2010

BREAKING NEWS: Transwoman assaulted at Kohl's Department Store in Jackson, TN

Akasha Adonis
Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving Day) is known for being one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Intrepid shoppers appear hours before the doors open at retail establishments across the country in search of deeply discounted merchandise for holiday gifts. We hear stories each year of customers storming the doors when they open to ensure purchase of an often limited supply of items on sale. Sadly, holiday cheer and good will is sometimes in shorter supply than the merchandise being sought.

Such was the case at Kohl's Department Store in Jackson, TN on Friday, Nov. 26. A transgender woman and her mother were assaulted by other shoppers as the store opened for business. When store personnel unlocked the doors to the store, Akasha Adonis and her mother of Humboldt, TN made their way to one of four entrances where there was no line. As they were entering the store, a girl from another entrance where there was a line ran up to Akasha's mother and another woman and attempted to ram through them into the store. When Akasha stepped between the girl and her mother to protect her, the girl jumped into Akasha's face and began cussing at her. At the same moment, a man attacked Akasha and another woman at the entrance. The assailant hit Akasha and pulled out her hair as he pulled her through the door into the store. The man then shoved his hand in her mouth with his thumb, tore three of her teeth out of socket, and broke her jaw as he forced Akasha to the ground. The assailant then stood up and walked into the store to shop as Kohl's staff stood idly by greeting other shoppers.

The other victim who was hit by the assailant called the police. Four Jackson Police Department officers responded to the scene. Officer Ashley M. McCullar interviewed Akasha, her mother, and the woman who was attacked. At first, Officer McCullar treated Akasha with respect. But Akasha noticed a marked change in attitude towards her when the officer learned she was transgender (Akasha's photo I.D. lists her name as Johnathan Quick):
When the officer first arrived on the scene and asked about the assault, he addressed me as she then asked for my i.d. and my name. [When] the  officer saw that it was a male name, and I was a male to female transexual, he immediately changed his demeanor in how he treated me and the other witnesses. He rolled his eyes and turned his back to not look at me and said that he had 'other places to be.' There was no more conversation directed to me but to fellow officers and [other] people. He was short and rude/dismissive to witnesses and to the officers I was the 'He not She.' The officer told my mother that the case would take a few days to write up and he would get the surveillance tape and then walked away. In the officer report he put in that "the black male then defended himself and put Quick in his place."
After learning that Akasha was transsexual, Akasha states that the officer made no real attempt to apprehend the suspect nor cared to view the surveillance video knowing that the suspect had not yet left the store.

Akasha's injuries were so severe
that her teeth could not be saved.
Akasha received medical care from a local emergency room and oral surgeon after the assault. None of her teeth could be saved and corrective surgery for her teeth and jaw will cost $6000.

Akasha's mother posted about the incident on her Facebook page. A Kohl's employee posted a comment in response which read: "no it happened before I got there. i got there at 5 AM. they said it was a guy and a guy dressed up as a woman . they said the he/she/it got its wig knocked off and some teeth knocked out." The employee may not have realized that Akasha's mother was relating an incident about her own child. The employee later deleted the comment from Facebook, but the comment was preserved in a forwarded Facebook email. The comment provides evidence of insensitivity and bias against transgender people on behalf of Kohl's employees.

Since the incident, Akasha and her mother tried to call attention to this gruesome attack, the lack of response by Koh'ls Store employees, and the bias exhibited by the Jackson Police Department by contacting local media (including WBBJ and the Jackson Sun newspaper). In a Jackson Sun report on Black Friday, Jackson Police minimized Akasha's injury:
The damage to Kris’ ankle is slight and likely not as painful as the punch in the mouth taken by one shopper at Kohl’s. Jackson police said two people got into a fight at that department store sometime before its 3 a.m. scheduled opening. Police said one person was socked in the mouth, but there were no serious injuries.
No. Serious. Injuries. Does the Jackson Police Department believe that permanent jaw damage and the loss of three teeth is not a serious injury? Are permanent injuries sustained by transgender persons not as serious as those suffered by others?
Akasha reached out to friends who put her in touch with Tennessee Equality Project. TEP's Madison County Committee Chair Drew Baker contacted Akasha to help and advise her on how best to proceed.

Akasha and her mother filed a complaint against the officer and asked for a written copy of the police report. The report given to Akasha omits a statement collected from an "unknown witness" cited in a separate section of the report recording the observations of Officer McCullar. The Officer recorded that the unknown witness said "Quick was outside in line and became upset with the black male subject and Quick then threw the first punch, the black male then defended him self and put Quick in his place." It appears that Officer McCullar is witholding part of the report that may shed light on whether the officer was recording his own transgender bias or that of the unknown witness. The other witness was the other woman attacked by the assailant at the entrance. What reason would she have to say that Akasha had been put in her place?

When Akasha and her mother contacted the Jackson Police Department to complain about their mistreatment, they were informed that JPD could not obtain a copy of the video surveillance from Kohl's without a subpoena. Since when is a subpoena necessary when a crime is committed?

Kohl's contacted Akasha today to request that she visit the store to complete an incident report for their company. When Akasha informed Kohl's representative of JPD's statement about needing a subpoena for the surveillance video, she was told that the police were welcome to a copy. Kohl's appears to be responding more appropriately at this stage, but the company appears to share liability for allowing an uncontrolled mob to put its customers at risk on store property. Let's hope that Kohl's cooperates in a full investigation of the incident by sharing the video and offers some assistance to Akasha with her medical bills.

This story is still unfolding, but several things are clear. Kohl's staff stood idly by while one of its customers was brutally attacked by an assailant who was allowed to walk freely into the store. Comments from store personnel demonstrate transgender bias of employees. The Jackson Police Department demonstrated bias in their treatment of Akasha, their minimization of her injuries, and in their reporting of the incident. JPD bias immediately following the incident may make it impossible to find the assailant and bring him to justice.

At this time Akasha is considering options on whether to pursue civil rights complaints.

- Jonathan Cole

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Closer: Illinois Legislature approves civil unions

On Tuesday, the Illinois House passed the civil unions bill and today the Senate did the same.

"Closer" is the only word I know to capture the situation.

Closer to being law: The bill has yet to be signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, but that is expected to happen soon. Still, nerves are bound to be raw after all the effort put into passing the bill. It always seems as if there is just one more hurdle. As they say, the waiting is the hardest part.

Closer to equality: We all know that civil unions aren't full marriage equality. And even if a marriage bill had passed, we know same-sex marriages in Illinois wouldn't be recognized in most states or by the federal government. And a civil union doesn't confer all the same benefits of a marriage even at the state level, but...what an amazing achievement! Even the benefits conferred by a civil union will help real couples support each other and their families better than they currently can. We should celebrate the hard work of activists and lawmakers in passing this legislation. It is incredibly hard passing positive protections for our community.

Closer to Tennessee: Tennessee still doesn't border any states that offer civil unions or marriage equality. But Southern Illinois is just a barge ride up the river and Chicago is a quick and relatively cheap flight from Nashville and Memphis. Is this as close as Tennessee is going to get to any form of relationship recognition until the federal courts get involved? The bill reminds us that no public body in Tennessee offers a health insurance partner benefit--not State government for its employees, not our public colleges and universities, and not our cities and counties. Might achieving partner benefits in some public body or institution be a good move in the next couple of years for Tennessee's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community? It's worth taking another look.

Finally, I have to wonder what impact the development has in Northwest Tennessee where news likely pours in from Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois. Will it increase the temptation for same-sex couples to move? Or will they most simply take a moment to acknowledge the news, swallow hard, and mentally try to move on from facing the ramifications of living in a state that has a marriage discrimination amendment to its constitution instead of civil unions or partner benefits? And what will their neighbors think? Nothing because it doesn't affect them? Or will they have a moment of empathy for their GLBT neighbors or will they say, "Thank God we don't live in Illinois; it's just so liberal"?

Unfortunately, I suspect that's as far as it all goes--a series of private, disconnected reflections not leading to any advances for people who need public protections for their relationships. The gains of states around us bring a sting of pain for those of us in Tennessee, but we still celebrate this important advance for the people of Illinois.

-Chris Sanders

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tennessee in the Crosshairs: Competing voices on bullying and acceptance

It hasn't been a great month for Tennessee's image in the news.

Converting lesbians in the military?: A story that broke last week and is making it around the planet but has yet to be covered by any Tennessee media outlet revealed that part-time Hamilton County magistrate Joe Rehyanksy was advocating excluding gay men from the military because he thought they would spread disease but that it would be all right to allow lesbians because straight male service members could change them. Raw Story has the key quotations:

"Lesbians should be allowed to serve, gay men should not," declared Joe Rehyansky in an article published Monday. Rehyansky, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, is a part-time magistrate in Hamilton County, Tennessee, and a former assistant district attorney.

In the original article, Rehyansky concluded that his lesbians-only policy "would get the distaff part of our homosexual population off our collective ‘Broke Back,’ thus giving straight male GIs a fair shot at converting lesbians and bringing them into the mainstream."

I'm not aware of any reconsideration or apology by Rehyansky, although his original piece at The Daily Caller has apparently been edited. Perhaps it's time for him to consider shifting from part-time to no-time status. Unfortunately the damage has been done. These views hurt real people trying to serve honorably in our armed forces and, once again, the remarks of another public official have made Tennessee a joke.

Pop music takes aim at Williamson County: Paramore front woman Hayley Williams and Ke$ha recently shared less than fond memories of their time in Tennessee schools. Here's how Williams characterized her experience:

“I went to one school [in Franklin] for six weeks and I was miserable,” she told Sugar.

“Even the teachers didn’t like me. The girls were such bitches. They would invite me to parties and I wouldn’t go because I didn’t want to be around them, then the next day at school, there would be all these rumours about me, like, ‘Hayley’s gay’.”

“I went home crying, saying, ‘Mum, I’m such a loser, I’m never going back’,” she added. “She saw how upset I was and she was like, ‘Okay’.”

And here's what Ke$ha said of her time in Brentwood when Spin asked her whether she was bullied:

"Yeah. I was a fucking weirdo. I grew up in the Bible Belt and I made my own clothes and dyed my hair purple. Nobody ever knew what to do with me. I still think America's trying to figure out what to do with me. I deal with haters on a daily basis."

Perhaps the bitterness of that experience has led Ke$ha to take up the cause of speaking out about bullying. The same Spin piece notes:

Ke$ha may be a pop star, but during her performance on Sunday's American Music Awards, she lifted a move straight out of the classic rock playbook. "Smashing my guitar felt fucking amazing," says the 23-year-old, who bashed her white axe into the stage after busting out a Spring Break-appropriate version of "We R Who We R," the chart-topping first single off her new album, Cannibal.

But Ke$ha says there was a message behind the destructive act: Scrawled across the back of her guitar, in bold letters, were the words "Don't Hate." "Young people need a role model to tell them they're beautiful exactly the way they are and that they don't have to be apologetic about themselves," says Ke$ha, who wrote the song in response to the recent spate of gay teenagers committing suicide. "So I wanted to write a super-positive anthem. Plus, in rock 'n' roll, destroying shit is awesome."

Dolly swoops in to save the day: Thank God for Tennessee's own Dolly Parton who in a recent interview with CNN's Larry King embraced her GLBT fans and spoke out against the bullying that threatens our community. The video follows:

Which voice will prevail?: Which voice will define what people around the world think about Tennessee? Will it be Rehyanksy's voice of ignorance and hate? Will it be the voice of people like Ke$ha and Hayley Williams who refuse to sugar-coat the oppressive aspects of our state's culture that they painfully experienced? Will it be a message of love and understanding coming from Dolly Parton and Tim McGraw who have spoken out about bullying?

It's up in the air at this point. All three voices will continue to be part of the conversation. Let's hope the balance will shift toward option number 3.

-Chris Sanders

Friday, November 26, 2010

Leftovers Edition: Davis says, "Repulsive." Oak Ridge drops gay bomb

Whether you're still sluggish from feasting or you got up at the crack of dawn (or before) for Black Friday deals or you're working today, the effects of Thanksgiving have a way of hanging on. I know I'll be eating leftovers for a couple of days at my place.

There are leftovers from Election Day, too. Let's take a look:

Fear and Loathing among the Blue Dogs: Michael Collins took a look at why Congressman Jim Cooper survived this election when so many white male Blue Dog Democrats didn't. We're glad he did because he's been a great supporter on hate crimes legislation, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But the money quote belongs to outgoing Congressman Lincoln Davis who lost his reelection bid:

"When you champion moral issues that are repulsive to Southern Baptists or to devout Catholics, it's hard to convince them they ought to vote for you."

I'm not sure which issues that Congressman Davis has in mind. He either didn't say or the piece didn't see the need to print the answer. But my guess is that he's either talking about abortion or equality issues or both. Debates have gone on endlessly since the election about why Democrats lost the House in such numbers. There can be little doubt that Davis's district is more socially conservative than Cooper's. But Tennessee voters will surprise you. They may not want gay people to get married, but a big chunk of them like the idea of protecting our community from job discrimination and that brings us to...

Oak Ridge's silent gay bomb went off: I like to think I keep up with news items affecting the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community in Tennessee, but I totally missed this one. On Election Day voters in the City of Oak Ridge voted to amend their charter to prohibit discrimination against city employees based on sexual orientation. (Note: The ballot measure does not include gender identity and on that basis TEP would not have supported it in its present form.)

The sample ballot gives the wording of the question here (see question 7 on p. 2 upper right of the pdf) and the election results (page 3 of the pdf) show that 2/3 of those who voted on that item supported it. There doesn't appear to have been much coverage leading up to the ballot measure. It is mentioned in this August Oak Ridger piece. But it is not singled out as being any more a source of controversy or "acrimonious study" than any of the others.

Despite the fact that the charter amendment is severely deficient in not including gender identity, what happened is pretty amazing. An East TN city's voters decided to make a change in their government's hiring policy to include gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. The conventional wisdom is that these rights shouldn't be put to popular vote and that voters will be far less likely than elected bodies to approve them. But I take it as one small indication that the November election in Tennessee was not about social issues.

I only wish we had had the chance to add gender identity to that charter amendment. That really would have been the Bomb!

Happy Leftovers Day!

-Chris Sanders

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Memphis City Council fails to provide LGBT-inclusive workplace protections for city employees

The Memphis City Council welcomes visitors to its home page with these words: 
Our Fellow Memphians: This is an exciting time to be a Memphian. Our city is on the move. Building on our heritage, working together, we've made great strides in recent years. From Downtown to Midtown to East Memphis, from Frayser to Whitehaven, Memphians share a pride in our past and a faith in our future.
The above words ring hollow after last night’s second reading of the Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance (See Item #7 in this video). The ENDO fell one vote short of the seven needed due to the withdrawal of support from Chairman Harold Collins.

The ENDO appeared as the only item in the Council’s Consent Agenda for second reading. The vote occurred as follows:

Yes: Halbert, Strickland, Ford, Lowery, Fullilove, and Flinn.
No: Boyd, Conrad, Hedgepeth
Abstained: None
No vote recorded: Brown, Collins, Morrison
Suspended: Swearengen Ware

Chairman Harold Collins
 Collins’ reversal ensured that the ENDO cannot return to the council’s agenda for six months. Council Chairman Collins and Councilors Boyd, Conrad, Hedgepeth, Brown, Collins, and Morrison have essentially voted that discrimination against City employees based on SOGIE should remain legal in Memphis. They reached this conclusion before a Council-authorized study of discrimination in city employment based on SOGIE had even begun.

The media and other organizations often saddle Memphis with poor ratings for quality of life and business friendly environment indices. Forbes Magazine ranked Memphis #3 on its “America’s Most Miserable Cities” index. Just hours before the ENDO vote, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research ranked Memphis last among the state's 50 largest communities in a list of business-friendly cities. Rather than stem the tide of bad news, the Memphis City Council added yet another heavy yoke to the shoulders of Memphis.

Our City Government has made it official: inequality in the workplace is acceptable and legal. This message will resonate outside City Hall. The decision will affect employee recruitment and retention in City Hall and private businesses in Memphis. Who wants to live in a community that does not value diversity in its workforce and community?

Despite yesterday’s vote, the City of Memphis Department of Human Resources will complete a study of discrimination in employment in every division of the city to include mistreatment based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (SOGIE). If the study is fairly designed and implemented, the results will shed light on the problem that many of our City Council members have chosen to ignore. How will they respond to internal employee data that demonstrates LGBT discrimination? We’ll have to wait at least 6 months to find out.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I am particularly grateful to everyone who wrote letters and emails, made phone calls, attended hearings, marched for equality, donated to the cause, and recruited more advocates in support of the ENDO.

I also encourage everyone to take a moment to give thanks for the equality advocates on the Memphis City Council who supported equality without fail: Janis Fullilove, Shea Flinn, Wanda Halbert, Jim Strickland, Edmund Ford, Jr., and Myron Lowery. Send them a message at this link.

It’s also appropriate to tell the remaining members of the Memphis City Council that you will remember their failure to support equality in Memphis.

The next six months will not be a vacation from equality activism in Memphis. In addition to ensuring that the city's discrimination study is conducted fairly, TEP (and TEP PAC) will be laying the groundwork to ensure that the Memphis City Council represents the mainstream values of equality that most cities our size already demonstrate. As we prepare, be ready to contribute your time, talent and treasure to advance equality in the political and electoral process. We must support equality advocates in our government and in next year's city government elections.

-Jonathan Cole, TEP Board Chair