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.

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dodging Bullets: We Will Survive

Tennessee's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community has a lot of practice at dodging bullets when it comes to the Legislature.

Speaker Vote: The results of the Republican Caucus battle for Speaker of the House nomination should definitely go in the bullet dodged column. Rep. Beth Harwell's victory over Rep. Glen Casada is good news. Casada has supported restrictions on adoption based on sexual orientation in the past. Harwell, on the other hand, does not seem focused on social issues. In fact, she talked to the media about jobs after her victory. During her speech to the Republican Caucus prior to the vote she noted that she had voted against guns in bars because of her constituents and she said there would be times when others would need a pass based on the wishes of their constituents and that they would get one! Harwell's constituents aren't fire-breathing social conservatives. Don't get me wrong, they aren't by and large progressive either. But her district does include a significant number of GLBT folks based on TEP's email list. We won't always agree with her, but she will listen to constituents and she will treat them with respect.

Tough year ahead: Harwell's election is a small, but significant reprieve, but the coming year won't be easy. No one knows the future, but we can probably expect some of the same negative bills we've seen over the last few years to make a return. If we're going to continue to dodge bullets, we're going to have to be faster and more unified.

The way forward: A few suggestions will serve us well over the next couple of years and probably beyond:

  • Make some new friends. The fact that matters is that one party is in control of everything. Whatever your party, get to know your Republican legislator because most of you have one now.
  • When negative bills are introduced, communicate with your representatives. Don't wait for them to get to the floor when they're about to pass. You might find as we did at last year's Advancing Equality Day on the Hill that not all Repubicans support all negative bills.
  • Help us make progress in Tennessee's cities and counties. I doubt anything positive is going to move at the federal or state level over the next two years. Progress is a local thing for the time being. Let's get active where we can advance protections for our community.
Stay strong. We will survive.

-Chris Sanders

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TEP joins others in confronting Rep. Curry Todd's intolerance

Rep. Curry Todd
At a Fiscal Review Committee hearing about the Cover Kids program on Tuesday of this week, State House Representative Curry Todd compared children born to immigrants in this country to the multiplication of rats. When told in committee that Cover Kids provided prenatal care to unborn children who would be born as U.S. citizens, Todd said immigrants can "go out there like rats and multiply."

When confronted about his statement, Todd "apologized" saying that he should have used the phrase "anchor babies" for newborns of immigrant parents.

NAACP Executive Director Madeleine C. Taylor
speaking at today's press conference

Earlier this evening representatives from Latino Memphis, the NAACP, Workers Interfaith Network, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, Tennessee Equality Project and other organizations gathered on the street outside Rep. Todd's Collierville home to take a stand against his unrepentant intolerance and bigotry.

On behalf of TEP, I read the following statement in solidarity with those confronting Todd's behavior:

Tennessee Equality Project joins today's chorus of voices condemning the insensitive and thoughtless remarks of State House Rep. Curry Todd of Shelby County. Such remarks are deeply troubling and offensive coming from an elected official in a public hearing. Rep. Todd's words dehumanize immigrant children born in this country and send a message of intolerance and bigotry. Such messages targeting a minority in our community poorly serve the constituents of House District 95 and the people of Tennessee. Such behavior damages the reputation of our great state. People want to live and work in inclusive communities that welcome diversity.  Communities that welcome all people regardless of their country of origin, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender foster cultural vibrancy and economic innovation. We call on Rep. Todd to issue a real apology and to embrace the diversity of our community and state as a social and economic good.
- Jonathan Cole, TEP Board Chair

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Memphis City Council votes favorable on LGBT-inclusive workplace protections

Equality advocates at
Memphis City Council
Equality advocates prevailed at last night's meeting of the Memphis City Council. The Council voted favorably on two separate items concerning LGBT-inclusive workplace protections.  Watch the proceedings here for the vote on the Consent Agenda that included the Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance (the Item #5 at 2:14:37) and the debate, public comment from citizens and the vote on the Discrimination Study Resolution at (Item #31 at 2:47:22). Many thanks to everyone who attended or spoke at the meeting, made phone calls, or sent messages of support to the City Council.

The council voted yes on the Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance (Item#5) as it appeared within the Consent Agenda with other resolutions and ordinances. The ordinance would prohibit employment discrimination in City Government based on a number of non-merit factors including sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (SOGIE). The last time that the ENDO appeared in a first reading (Aug. 10), Councilwoman Swearengen Ware requested the ENDO be voted on separately which opened the ordinance to amendments weakening the legislation. Her absence from the council this time due to an indictment on a charge of official misconduct probably made the legislative process smoother this time.

This time the vote on the consent agenda was as close as the first time, gaining the 7 votes necessary to pass out of the 11 members present:
Yes: Collins, Halbert, Strickland, Ford, Lowery, Fullilove, and Flinn.
No: Boyd, Conrad
Abstained: Brown, Morrison
Absent: Hedgepeth
Suspended: Swearengen Ware
Send a message of thanks to each of the council members who voted yes at this link for keeping the chance for LGBT-inclusive workplace protections alive. They need to hear from you before the second reading on Nov. 23.

The next item on the agenda (#31) was a resolution calling for a comprehensive review of discrimination based on non-merit factors including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in every division of city government. The measure passed with a more comfortable margin with nine votes:
Yes: Morrison, Boyd, Collins, Halbert, Strickland, Ford, Lowery, Fullilove, and Flinn.
No: Conrad
Abstained: Brown
Absent: Hedgepeth
Suspended: Swearengen Ware
What's next? The ENDO will appear for second reading in the Consent Agenda at the Nov. 23 meeting of the Memphis City Council (3:30 PM). Our sponsor and supporters on the Council have asked that equality advocates be present for this second reading, especially since the vote is so close. After the second reading, the ENDO will be held for third reading until the results of the discrimination study is received by the Council.

Implementation of the Study Resolution that passed is a complicated matter requiring that several concerns be addressed. Representatives of Tennessee Equality Project and Family Action Council of Tennessee have been invited to work with the Director of Human Resources for the City of Memphis to develop a study process that is fair, objective, and impartial. TEP will seek to ensure that the survey process protects the confidentiality of employees since many of the City employees that we've spoken to fear coming forward with their experiences of discrimination in the workplace due to concerns about harassment and retaliation.

In addition to contacting your Memphis City Council members in support of LGBT-inclusive workplace protections, you can support the advancement of equality in your community by making a contribution to Tennessee Equality Project. You can donate here or make your contribution in person at a House Party benefiting TEP at 7 PM on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 1889 Nelson Avenue in Memphis (click here for full details). 

Monday, November 8, 2010

LGBT-Inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinances in 45 states

Will Memphis really become a City of Choice that welcomes all people?
The City of Memphis stands ready to be the next local government to join the mainstream in protecting all its employees from discrimination on the job based on a number of factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

Based on the latest report available from HRC (plus one omission: Nashville, TN), 374 local governments (cities and counties) offer some form of specific workplace protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity or expression. Cities and counties have enacted employment non-discrimination ordinances of the kind that TEP is re-introducing tomorrow in Memphis City Council in 45 out of 50 states.

Inclusion and embracing diversity are social and economic goods that strengthen the fabric of American society. Memphis should be the next city to join the mainstream.