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.

Friday, December 30, 2011

TEP at work on Franklin Police Dept's handling of gay man's sexual assault case

Tonight Out & About Newspaper reported the story of the sexual assault of a gay man and the Franklin Police Department's handling of it. 

The Tennessee Equality Project is very disturbed by these reports. Our primary concern is for the victim and for the safety of our community. We are also disturbed by the reports of how the Franklin Police Department handled the incident. Within half an hour of the story breaking, we reached out to them and expressed our concern and offered them our TEP Foundation diversity training. We want to make sure that no victim is degraded in the process of reporting a crime.

-Chris Sanders

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Playing politics with no thought for the safety of children in Tennessee

There is a dangerous movement at work in Tennessee: a movement to make public schools less safe for our children.

In a recent email sent to supporters, the Family Action Council of Tennessee declared its support for the "License to Bully" bill (HB1153/SB0750):
We plan to press the legislature to amend our state’s school anti-bullying law to make sure it protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality.  
Will State government create a "License to Bully" in Tennessee?
The religious liberty and free speech rights of students are already protected by the U.S. Constitution. This legislation would give special protections to students of a particular religious point of view. If made into law, FACT would give students a "license to bully" that allows them to hide their irrational biases behind an extreme religious belief. 

The last year has been difficult for students in Tennessee. Students at Sequoyah High School in Monroe County have faced community and school district intimidation in trying to confront examples of bullying and harrassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students. Students and parents have fought hard to win support for a Gay Straight Alliance - a student organization shown in many academic setting to promote understanding and respect for LGBTQ students in schools.

In December, we learned from family, friends and fellow students that Jacob Rogers experienced years of anti-gay bullying at Cheatham County Central High School in Ashland City prior to ending his life. 

Faced with such news, the Tennessee General Assembly ought to focus on increasing the number of protective factors that promote the safety of students in public schools. The "License to Bully" and "Don't Say Gay" (HB0229/SB0049) bills will only serve to increase risks to students. But some lawmakers don't seem to get it.

During the break in session, Tennessee Equality Project forwarded a link to Tennessee lawmakers of the recent column written by Gail Kerr of the Tennessean which outlined the perils of enacting the "Don't Say Gay" bill in relation to the reports of anti-gay bullying that preceded the suicide of Jacob Rogers in Ashland City. We wanted to make sure that lawmakers in the Tennessee understood the danger of enacting the "Don't Say Gay" bill into law. 

We received rather disturbing responses from two Tennessee Representatives (one of whom sits on the House Education Committee).  

From Rep. Joshua Evans (District 66 - Greenbrier):

If Gail's against it, that's reason enough for me to be for it.

A simple "no comment" would have sufficed. From Rep. John Ragan (District 33 - Oak Ridge) who serves in the House Education Committee, we received this:
Dear Mr. Cole,

The article you forwarded by Gail Kerr, “Teen's suicide shows danger of 'don't say gay' bill” (Tennessean Dec. 18, 2011) is so slanted as to qualify as propaganda.   Ms. Kerr spends almost her entire column selectively citing anecdotal, discriminatorily inequitable support for her position.

It is mentioned, in passing, that the school had a policy against bullying.  However, the effectiveness of the policy is then dismissed peremptorily on the basis of a grandmother’s commentary.  That is certainly, an unbiased source, right?  Perhaps, the opinions of faculty or other students on the effectiveness of the policy could have been included.  Did the author not interview any of them?  Alternatively, did she elect to exclude such interviews because they disagreed with her implied point?

Oddly, while willing to include a close relative’s unsubstantiated opinion, she failed to include any facts potentially contradictory to her implied cause.  Could the presence of such facts cause a reasonable person to question her unprofessional implication of the cause of an unfortunate, self-inflicted demise of a young Tennessean?

For example, she could have pointed out that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens in this country.  Additionally, she could have mentioned that U.S. Teenage boys were four times as likely as teenage girls to die by suicide.  Could the mere mention of such statistics possibly cause a reader to conclude that Ms. Kerr’s analysis was intentionally skewed?

She could have mentioned that it has been well known for a decade that suicide is attempted much more frequently in the homosexual community than in the heterosexual community (Mathy, Cochran, Olsen, & Mays, 2009).  This same source pointed out that, on average, suicide is approximately three times more likely among homosexuals than heterosexuals.  Could the inclusion of these facts in her column have possibly indicated to a reasonable reader that Ms. Kerr’s implications were erroneous?

Finally, there is the truly, most relevant question that Ms. Kerr studiously and meticulously avoided:  Could the high school senior’s suicide have had more to do with his own proclivities and behavior than anything to do with schoolmate bullies or a bill that was discussed, but not acted on, in a legislative committee?

In short, Mr. Cole, the column you forwarded qualifies as nothing but a politically distorted, intentionally poorly sourced, screed.  Anyone who is taken in by this agitprop is intellectually asleep, or has, obviously, never been exposed to, even, the most basic level of education in critical thinking.

It is not only incredibly poor taste, but, truly disgusting, that a columnist in a major, metropolitan newspaper would stoop to the level of using the tragic loss of family’s loved one to try to make a political point.  It is even worse that such a columnist would omit relevant facts and attempt to misrepresent circumstantial context for the sake of a fashionable, political correct perspective.

Good Day,

John D. Ragan
State Representative
As I read each response, I searched for concern or compassion for Jacob or students like him. But I came up short. Had Rep. Ragan really done his research, he would know that Cheatham County School District's bullying policy does not provide enumerated protections that include sexual orientation (or gender identity or expression). Additionally, school settings hostile to LGBQ students contribute to poor outcomes for LGBQ students. A recent study concluded that there is :
. . . an association between an objective measure of the social environment and suicide attempts among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. The social environment appears to confer risk for suicide attempts over and above individual-level risk factors. These results have important implications for the development of policies and interventions to reduce sexual orientation–related disparities in suicide attempts.*
It's time for Tennesseans to stop using children as pawns for social, religious and political agendas. We need to be focusing on ways to ensure that Tennessee students receive an education free from bullying, harassment and intimidation. We need to increase protective factors and decrease risk factors for students in Tennessee schools. I ask you to join us in that effort. We need parents, teachers, students and other advocates to step up conversations with their elected representatives in state government. The health and welfare of Tennessee children may depend on it.

- Jonathan Cole

*Hatzenbuehler, M.L. April 18, 2011. "The Social Environment and Suicide Attempts in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth." Pediatrics. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Former Metro Council candidate VanReece finds inclusive workplace at Nashville Symphony

We recently caught up with former Metro Nashville Council candidate Nancy VanReece to find out what she's been up to.  Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Grand Divisions:  You recently took a new position with the Nashville Symphony.  Tell us what you'll be doing.

Nancy VanReece:  I am working with a great Communications team as part of the External Affairs Department. Daily, you can bet that I am busy crafting and managing social media strategies for each event produced by the Nashville Symphony as well as for each department of the Nashville Symphony and Schermerhorn Symphony Center. In addition to doing our best to turn content into conversations in the social-sphere, I am managing the updates to to and  I will also be chief curator for a new blog launching in 2012 that will help share the stories of Nashville's symphony on a daily basis.
Grand Divisions:  You've always indicated that equality in the workplace is an important value to you.  Tell us about what modifications to their employment policies that the Symphony has made since you started working there. 
Nancy VanReece:  Actually, there has been no modification of practice, just an update in the language to their nondiscrimination policy. Back when I was the Executive Director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival I did a quick survey of nonprofit arts organizations receiving funding from Metro Davidson County that had inclusive non-discrimination polices.  Almost all did, including the Nashville Symphony.  I learned at that time that they also allowed domestic partners of employees to receive health benefit options. I tucked that information away back in 2007.  

You can bet that it came back up when I was interviewing for the position 4 years later.  I asked again about both.  I had pledged to not work for a company that didn't have an inclusive policy so it was imperative that what I learned in 2007 was still true.   After reading the policy, however, there was some antiquated language that I asked to be updated.  Jonathan Norris, VP of Human Resources didn't hesitate.  I simply suggested they use the same exact language that our Metro government uses. The policy was quickly updated.  I was proud to add it to the website the first week I was there.  

The domestic partner benefit option, although not inexpensive, was one the factors that encouraged me to leave my growing free-lance work for the opportunity to be part of the NSO team.  Joan, my partner of nearly 24 years, is still under employed part time (She is the food bank coordinator at Martha O'Bryan and fulfills customer orders for Cool People Care). We have been unable to afford 2 individual policies at the rate offered to us. It's still expensive this way and until federal changes are made, we have to pay taxes on her benefit, but it still costs less than buying it directly.

Grand Divisions:  As well as your work with non-profits and your engagement with artistic creativity, you're known as an advocate for the Madison area of Davidson County.  What neighborhood projects do you have in the works?
Nancy VanReece:  I'm an advocate for Nashville and for the development of the Northeast Corridor. The new District 8 is part of Madison, Maplewood, Gra-Mar, Inglewood, It's Dickerson Pike and Gallatin Pike and everything in-between. it's all Nashville. At the request of some folks I met during the campaign this past year, I help start a Facebook Group called the The Blue Star Group. It exist to provide information and facilitate conversation about the corridor that is part of  Districts 7,8 and 9.  Councilmen Pridemore and Davis have participated on occasion.  I'm still waiting to see how many of the 12 of us that started the page will facilitate.  I asked Council-lady Bennett to join and post updates but she told me, "I don't have time for Facebook.". I certainly hope that she will change her mind.
I went to a local coffee chat with Councilman Anthony Davis and there were people there from 7,6 and 8.  We are all in this together.  The success of Riverside Village in 7 will bring confidence to the development of the Madison Village in 8/9. The success of the East-West Connector mass transit line into 5-points in District 6 connects the Rivergate-Madison MTA 56 BRT-Lite directly in a way that can only be productive up the northeast corridor. I still envision a major Madison resurgence with landscaping, park and rides,  local shops and restaurants all coming… and it can't come soon enough.  Meanwhile, the people that live in this area continue to enjoy their escape to a suburban environment only 9 miles away from the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Grand Divisions:  Thank you, Nancy, and congratulations!
-Chris Sanders

Monday, December 19, 2011

Update on hospital visitation case: Toward a successful resolution

Out & About Newspaper reported today that Val Burke had been denied the ability to visit her partner at Rolling Hills Hospital in Franklin. 

TEP learned about the case last night from Out & About when they were seeking comment.  So we immediately went to work.  At about 9:00 p.m. on Sunday I contacted Rolling Hills and spoke with a receptionist.  I explained the situation and asked her whether they participate in Medicare/Medicaid.  They do, which is no surprise.  But it's a critical point because, based on recent federal Health and Human Services regulations, all facilities that participate in Medicare/Medicaid must grant equal visitation, meaning a patient has the right to choose who visits him or her. 

The receptionist transferred me to the voice mail of one of the administrators and I explained the incident I was aware of, cited the regulation, and made it clear that if the incident had occurred that they "can't do that." 

Today I got a call from another administrator who said that she had held a meeting with their leadership team and explained the regulation.  She indicated that things would change.

So far so good.  I had an email exchange with Val today and she reported that the hospital had contacted her about arranging visitation.

The regulation is still relatively new, so it's likely that these kinds of incidents will unfortunately continue to occur.  It's incredibly frightening and enraging to experience something like Val went through.  Fortunately, once the regulation is pointed out, I would expect most health facilities to comply.  It is clear that we all need to do more to educate the health care industry about this important policy change.

In the mean time, we're all relieved for Val and her partner.  I'm personally grateful for administrators who "get it" the minute something like this is brought to their attention.

-Chris Sanders

Friday, December 16, 2011

Register for TEP's Mardi Gras Gumbo and Bread Pudding Competition in Memphis

Tennessee Equality Project is proud to host its 4th Annual Mardi Gras Party on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012, which includes our second Gumbo Tasting Competition and a new Bread Pudding Contest. The ingredients of Gumbo are as diverse as the LGBT and allied community, and we celebrate this in Mardi Gras style! Participation was so enormous last year that we've moved the competition to a larger space at Spectrum Memphis. Funds raised from the competition will benefit TEP to advance and protect the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families in Tennessee.

The Mardi Gras Party competition has multiple categories:

  • Amateur Gumbo - teams of non-professionals who love to cook. Entry fee: $25.
  • Professional Gumbo - teams that include at least one person who is or has been paid to cook (you know who you are!). Entry fee: $50.
  • Bread Pudding - teams that include bakers of any background for single division contest. Entry fee: $15.

Space for competing teams is limited. Gumbo and Bread Pudding Teams must submit completed entry forms online and submit their registration fee by Feb. 1, 2012 to guarantee a chance to compete. Teams may register for Gumbo, Bread Pudding, or both competitions.

TEP is offering sponsorships for this year's event for only $100. This includes advertising of your organization or business in event publicity, two (2) sets of People’s Choice tickets, and free entry into Gumbo or Bread Pudding competition. Sponsors must register by January 20, 2012 to ensure advertising for printed event posters.

Judging Criteria: The Gumbo Tasting Competition shall be judged on aroma, consistency, taste, and aftertaste by a panel of public figures from the Memphis area. First, Second and Third Place winners will be declared by the Judges Panel and by Gumbo tasters who attend for People’s Choice awards.

Register for competition or sponsorship for this event online at this link: Click here for a "print-friendly" version of the competition invitation, rules and application. Gumbo team registration shall be confirmed by event organizers after application and entry fee are received.



Sunday, February 12, 2012, 4:30 -7 PM
616 Marshall Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103

For more information, call 901-301-3306 or email

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cheatham County High School dodges questions about anti-LGBT bullying

Will Cheatham County Central High School promote
a "No Bullying Zone" for all students?
Last night, parents, students, concerned citizens and TEP Board members gathered in Ashland City, TN to participate in a meeting about suicide and suicide prevention at Cheatham County Central High School. Representatives from the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network were on hand to provide information. TSPN shared an important resource for anyone who is contemplating suicide or knows someone who is. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is the number to call for anyone who needs help. Program this number on your mobile phone in case you ever need it.

During the meeting, a TSPN official shared that bullying had nothing to do with Jacob Rogers’ decision to end his life last week; other factors played a greater role. However, parents and students at the meeting were not satisfied with this assessment. Many parents and a student aware of anti-LGBT bullying at the school tried to ask questions about what the school was doing to address the issue. TEP Board member H.G. Stovall asked a pointed question to Principal Glenna Barrow during the brief time that was alloted::

I asked Principal Barrow if the school’s bullying policy included explicit protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. At first, she said it did. I asked her to check the policy which she happened to hold in her hand. She read aloud the protected factors from the Cheatham County Board of Education Policy 6.304 that prohibit discrimination, harassment, bullying, and intimidation that is “sexual, racial, ethnic or religious in nature.” When she realized that sexual orientation and gender identity/expression were not specifically included, she said she interpreted the policy to cover those areas.

The meeting ended abruptly before Stovall could ask Principal Barrow if the the rest of the faculty shared her interpretation of the policy. While Principal Barrow should be applauded for her broad interpretation of the school board’s anti-bullying policy, her response points out a real problem for Cheatham County Schools, including Central High School. Without specific protections for LGBT students, how are staff supposed to know when to intervene when they witness anti-LGBT bullying? What sort of training do school staff receive on bullying? How is intolerance of LGBT students among students and faculty addressed? What safeguards are in place to protect against anti-LGBT bias at the school?

These questions show no signs of going away. Many parents were frustrated by the unwillingness of officials to answer their questions about bullying. Parents and students at last night’s meeting expressed a willingness to continue casting a bright spotlight on an issue they feel is important for ensuring a safe school for students. The school must go further than sharing a 1-800 number to provide protective factors for students who may be bullied, feel depressed or isolated, or be contemplating suicide.

Anyone interested in being a part of this change is encouraged to contact Chris Sanders or H.G. Stovall. TEP stands ready to empower parents and students in Cheatham County in their quest to bring about specific protections. If you have not already done so, I invite you to participate in TEP’s petition to the Cheatham County School Board and District Director calling for policy reform. Then share this petition with your friends and family.

- Jonathan Cole

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Take action to promote safer schools in Cheatham County

Our hearts go out to the family, friends, classmates and teachers of Jacob Rogers, a student at Cheatham County Central High School in Ashland City, TN who completed suicide on December 7, 2011. A news report alleges that Jacob Rogers complained of frequent bullying at school based on sexual orientation. A friend of Jacob reported that he dropped out of school before Thanksgiving after feeling ignored by school officials.

This terrible event serves as a reminder to all parents, teachers and school administrators that they share a responsibility for supporting the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Individuals, families, communities and the whole of society have a responsibility to promote a culture that welcomes, accepts and supports LGBT students for who they are.

During this difficult time, we encourage students, parents and teachers to take advantage of grief counseling offered by Cheatham County Central High School or other mental health resources in the community. Discussions that follow youth suicide deaths present an important opportunity to remind people — and families of LGBT youth in particular — of how important it is to love, embrace and accept their entire child for all of who they are.

Following this terrible event, Tennessee Equality Project calls upon the Cheatham County School Board to fully investigate this tragic incident and the school’s response to the bullying of Jacob Rogers. We also call upon the School Board to implement the following recommendations from GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) for addressing anti-LGBT bullying and harassment:

  1. Revise district policy to explicitly prohibit student discrimination, harassment, bullying, and intimidation based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. The school district must establish an enumerated policy for unwelcomed conduct that focuses on sex, race, ethnicity, religious belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. An enumerated policy is crucial to ensure that anti-bullying policies are effective for all students.
  2. Require staff trainings to enable school staff to identify and address anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying, and harassment effectively and in a timely manner.
  3. Support student efforts to address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment on campus, such as the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance or participation in events such as the National Day of Silence and Ally Week. GSAs in schools have proven effective in reducing violence and harassment of LGBT students.
  4. Institute age-appropriate, inclusive curricula to help students understand and respect difference within the school community and society as a whole.
Send a message to the Cheatham County School Board to ask them to take positive steps in response to this tragedy.

- Jonathan Cole

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Impact of Secretary Clinton's Remarks in Recognition of International Human Rights Day

We at Tennessee Equality Project are still considering the full impact of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people given at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on December 6, 2012 in anticipation of Human Rights Day. I can't help but think that this address will mark a turning point in the history of human rights. Secretrary Clinton adeptly captures this moment in time recognizing the reality and challenges we face as a global community in honoring and protecting the rights of LGBT people.

In her speech, the Secretary noted that while the world must address the human rights of LGBT people, the United States has much work left to do:

I speak about this subject knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home. 
The Secretary is exactly right. Tennessee has actually taken steps backward in the last year with the advance of the "Don't Say Gay" bill and the anti-LGBT law that prohibits workplace protections for LGBT employees (HB600/SB632). It's why the Secretary's remarks are encouraging to hear only a few days after Tennessee Equality Project invited individuals and organizations to support the Tennessee Human Rights Petition

It can be difficult for those of us in Tennessee to affect  national or international policy toward LGBT people and their families. But influencing policy in our own community and state is within our grasp and power. Take a moment to
read or watch Secretary Clinton's inspiring and historic speech below. May her remarks inspire us all to action at home and abroad.

Jonathan Cole
Good evening, and let me express my deep honor and pleasure at being here. I want to thank Director General Tokayev and Ms. Wyden along with other ministers, ambassadors, excellencies, and UN partners. This weekend, we will celebrate Human Rights Day, the anniversary of one of the great accomplishments of the last century.

Beginning in 1947, delegates from six continents devoted themselves to drafting a declaration that would enshrine the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere. In the aftermath of World War II, many nations pressed for a statement of this kind to help ensure that we would prevent future atrocities and protect the inherent humanity and dignity of all people. And so the delegates went to work. They discussed, they wrote, they revisited, revised, rewrote, for thousands of hours. And they incorporated suggestions and revisions from governments, organizations, and individuals around the world.

At three o'clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And with the declaration, it was made clear that rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them.

In the 63 years since the declaration was adopted, many nations have made great progress in making human rights a human reality. Step by step, barriers that once prevented people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, the full experience of dignity, and the full benefits of humanity have fallen away. In many places, racist laws have been repealed, legal and social practices that relegated women to second-class status have been abolished, the ability of religious minorities to practice their faith freely has been secured.

In most cases, this progress was not easily won. People fought and organized and campaigned in public squares and private spaces to change not only laws, but hearts and minds. And thanks to that work of generations, for millions of individuals whose lives were once narrowed by injustice, they are now able to live more freely and to participate more fully in the political, economic, and social lives of their communities.

Now, there is still, as you all know, much more to be done to secure that commitment, that reality, and progress for all people. Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.

I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time. I speak about this subject knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.

Now, raising this issue, I know, is sensitive for many people and that the obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights of LGBT people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs. So I come here before you with respect, understanding, and humility. Even though progress on this front is not easy, we cannot delay acting. So in that spirit, I want to talk about the difficult and important issues we must address together to reach a global consensus that recognizes the human rights of LGBT citizens everywhere.

The first issue goes to the heart of the matter. Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same. Now, of course, 60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community. They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups. Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity.

This recognition did not occur all at once. It evolved over time. And as it did, we understood that we were honoring rights that people always had, rather than creating new or special rights for them. Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgendered women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives. And it is a violation of human rights when life-saving care is withheld from people because they are gay, or equal access to justice is denied to people because they are gay, or public spaces are out of bounds to people because they are gay. No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are, we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity.

The second issue is a question of whether homosexuality arises from a particular part of the world. Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The Government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Now, some worry that protecting the human rights of the LGBT community is a luxury that only wealthy nations can afford. But in fact, in all countries, there are costs to not protecting these rights, in both gay and straight lives lost to disease and violence, and the silencing of voices and views that would strengthen communities, in ideas never pursued by entrepreneurs who happen to be gay. Costs are incurred whenever any group is treated as lesser or the other, whether they are women, racial, or religious minorities, or the LGBT. Former President Mogae of Botswana pointed out recently that for as long as LGBT people are kept in the shadows, there cannot be an effective public health program to tackle HIV and AIDS. Well, that holds true for other challenges as well.

The third, and perhaps most challenging, issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn't cultural; it's criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.

Of course, it bears noting that rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights. Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.

The fourth issue is what history teaches us about how we make progress towards rights for all. Progress starts with honest discussion. Now, there are some who say and believe that all gay people are pedophiles, that homosexuality is a disease that can be caught or cured, or that gays recruit others to become gay. Well, these notions are simply not true. They are also unlikely to disappear if those who promote or accept them are dismissed out of hand rather than invited to share their fears and concerns. No one has ever abandoned a belief because he was forced to do so.

Universal human rights include freedom of expression and freedom of belief, even if our words or beliefs denigrate the humanity of others. Yet, while we are each free to believe whatever we choose, we cannot do whatever we choose, not in a world where we protect the human rights of all.

Reaching understanding of these issues takes more than speech. It does take a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to see stark differences in belief as a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it.

But progress comes from changes in laws. In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.

Many in my country thought that President Truman was making a grave error when he ordered the racial desegregation of our military. They argued that it would undermine unit cohesion. And it wasn't until he went ahead and did it that we saw how it strengthened our social fabric in ways even the supporters of the policy could not foresee. Likewise, some worried in my country that the repeal of “Don't Ask, Don’t Tell” would have a negative effect on our armed forces. Now, the Marine Corps Commandant, who was one of the strongest voices against the repeal, says that his concerns were unfounded and that the Marines have embraced the change.

Finally, progress comes from being willing to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. We need to ask ourselves, "How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love? How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?" This challenge applies to all of us as we reflect upon deeply held beliefs, as we work to embrace tolerance and respect for the dignity of all persons, and as we engage humbly with those with whom we disagree in the hope of creating greater understanding.

A fifth and final question is how we do our part to bring the world to embrace human rights for all people including LGBT people. Yes, LGBT people must help lead this effort, as so many of you are. Their knowledge and experiences are invaluable and their courage inspirational. We know the names of brave LGBT activists who have literally given their lives for this cause, and there are many more whose names we will never know. But often those who are denied rights are least empowered to bring about the changes they seek. Acting alone, minorities can never achieve the majorities necessary for political change.

So when any part of humanity is sidelined, the rest of us cannot sit on the sidelines. Every time a barrier to progress has fallen, it has taken a cooperative effort from those on both sides of the barrier. In the fight for women’s rights, the support of men remains crucial. The fight for racial equality has relied on contributions from people of all races. Combating Islamaphobia or anti-Semitism is a task for people of all faiths. And the same is true with this struggle for equality.

Conversely, when we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message. Right here in Geneva, the international community acted this year to strengthen a global consensus around the human rights of LGBT people. At the Human Rights Council in March, 85 countries from all regions supported a statement calling for an end to criminalization and violence against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the following session of the Council in June, South Africa took the lead on a resolution about violence against LGBT people. The delegation from South Africa spoke eloquently about their own experience and struggle for human equality and its indivisibility. When the measure passed, it became the first-ever UN resolution recognizing the human rights of gay people worldwide. In the Organization of American States this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created a unit on the rights of LGBT people, a step toward what we hope will be the creation of a special rapporteur.

Now, we must go further and work here and in every region of the world to galvanize more support for the human rights of the LGBT community. To the leaders of those countries where people are jailed, beaten, or executed for being gay, I ask you to consider this: Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same. It also means ensuring that all citizens are treated as equals under your laws, because let me be clear – I am not saying that gay people can’t or don’t commit crimes. They can and they do, just like straight people. And when they do, they should be held accountable, but it should never be a crime to be gay.

And to people of all nations, I say supporting human rights is your responsibility too. The lives of gay people are shaped not only by laws, but by the treatment they receive every day from their families, from their neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to advance human rights worldwide, said that these rights begin in the small places close to home – the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work. These places are your domain. The actions you take, the ideals that you advocate, can determine whether human rights flourish where you are.

And finally, to LGBT men and women worldwide, let me say this: Wherever you live and whatever the circumstances of your life, whether you are connected to a network of support or feel isolated and vulnerable, please know that you are not alone. People around the globe are working hard to support you and to bring an end to the injustices and dangers you face. That is certainly true for my country. And you have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.

The Obama Administration defends the human rights of LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy and as a priority of our foreign policy. In our embassies, our diplomats are raising concerns about specific cases and laws, and working with a range of partners to strengthen human rights protections for all. In Washington, we have created a task force at the State Department to support and coordinate this work. And in the coming months, we will provide every embassy with a toolkit to help improve their efforts. And we have created a program that offers emergency support to defenders of human rights for LGBT people.

This morning, back in Washington, President Obama put into place the first U.S. Government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad. Building on efforts already underway at the State Department and across the government, the President has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights, to enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, and to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.

I am also pleased to announce that we are launching a new Global Equality Fund that will support the work of civil society organizations working on these issues around the world. This fund will help them record facts so they can target their advocacy, learn how to use the law as a tool, manage their budgets, train their staffs, and forge partnerships with women’s organizations and other human rights groups. We have committed more than $3 million to start this fund, and we have hope that others will join us in supporting it.

The women and men who advocate for human rights for the LGBT community in hostile places, some of whom are here today with us, are brave and dedicated, and deserve all the help we can give them. We know the road ahead will not be easy. A great deal of work lies before us. But many of us have seen firsthand how quickly change can come. In our lifetimes, attitudes toward gay people in many places have been transformed. Many people, including myself, have experienced a deepening of our own convictions on this topic over the years, as we have devoted more thought to it, engaged in dialogues and debates, and established personal and professional relationships with people who are gay.

This evolution is evident in many places. To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, “If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.” There is little doubt in my mind that support for LGBT human rights will continue to climb. Because for many young people, this is simple: All people deserve to be treated with dignity and have their human rights respected, no matter who they are or whom they love.

There is a phrase that people in the United States invoke when urging others to support human rights: “Be on the right side of history.” The story of the United States is the story of a nation that has repeatedly grappled with intolerance and inequality. We fought a brutal civil war over slavery. People from coast to coast joined in campaigns to recognize the rights of women, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, children, people with disabilities, immigrants, workers, and on and on. And the march toward equality and justice has continued. Those who advocate for expanding the circle of human rights were and are on the right side of history, and history honors them. Those who tried to constrict human rights were wrong, and history reflects that as well.

I know that the thoughts I’ve shared today involve questions on which opinions are still evolving. As it has happened so many times before, opinion will converge once again with the truth, the immutable truth, that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights. We are called once more to make real the words of the Universal Declaration. Let us answer that call. Let us be on the right side of history, for our people, our nations, and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the work we do today. I come before you with great hope and confidence that no matter how long the road ahead, we will travel it successfully together. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Compelling bullying video going viral, pre-emptive first strike against partner benefits, and Occupying equality in Nashville

Brave student posts video about bullying:  This weekend lots of people in Tennessee were posting this video by a boy named Jonah about the bullying he's facing every day:

Yes, this is happening to children every day around the country and, no, adults aren't doing enough.  Instead of passing the policies that need to be passed, adults are standing in the way because they're somehow afraid they might accidentally teach or validate homosexuality.  In the absence of policy, it's easy for adults to look the other way and dismissively say, "Kids."   These videos show, however, that bullied children refuse to be invisible.  We hope there's an adult at Jonah's school who intervenes and helps make it safe for him to get his education.

Casada launches first strike against partner benefits in labor bill restricting local governments: State Senator Brian Kelsey of Shelby County and State Rep. Glen Casada of Williamson County are targeting Tennessee's local governments again.  The Tennessean's Michael Cass reports on the bill: 

A bill the General Assembly will consider next year would prohibit local governments from imposing requirements on contractors doing business with them for health insurance coverage, minimum wage levels or family leave allowances beyond what state law requires.

But there's more.  The bill would also have the effect of preventing a city in county in Tennessee from requiring government contractors from adding domestic partner benefits:

Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project, which supported the Metro nondiscrimination ordinance and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state, said he’s worried about Republican efforts.
“All the lobbying interests that care about local government need to wake up,” he said. “If we don’t stop this train, local authority is going to be gutted in the next few years.”
Sanders said the legislation could prevent cities from requiring the extension of benefits to domestic partners of contractors’ employees. But he said he hasn’t heard anyone in city government talk about pursuing such an initiative.

Occupying equality this weekend:   Occupy groups from around Tennessee came to Nashville this weekend and are holding a series of events including a teach-in on the history of the movement for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights, according to Nashville's Newschannel 5

-Chris Sanders

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sign the Tennessee Human Rights Petition

Sign the Tennessee Human Rights Petition
today at
Earlier this year, the proponents of the "Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act" (HB600/SB632) claimed that local governments should not be enacting workplace protections or other employment provisions that affect private employers. They complained that a patchwork of non-discrimination ordinances would create regulatory burdens for private companies doing business in communities across the state. Proponents of HB600/SB632 were successful in enacting the law which repealed Nashville's Contract Accountability Non-Discrimination Ordinance (CANDO) and prohibits all local governments in Tennessee from extending LGBT-inclusive workplace protections to employees of private businesses.

Tennessee Equality Project actively lobbied against what we more appropriately called HB600/SB632: the "Special Access to Discriminate Act." We continue to challenge the SAD Act on constitutional grounds along with many allies as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee. Today, we challenge our supporters and allies to commit one step further.

We disagreed with supporters of the SAD Act on the burden it would create for business. So does big business. The majority of Fortune 500 companies lead the way in providing LGBT-inclusive workplace protections because they've realized that inclusive work environments promote creativity in the workplace, employee retention, and recruitment of the best job candidates.

While the supporters of the SAD Act didn't see it that way, they exposed a great need in our State. Tennessee DOES need a uniform standard for protecting people from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, such discrimination ought to be prohibited by law in employment, housing, education, financing and public accommodations in the State of Tennessee.

The Board of Tennessee Equality Project recently approved the following statement expressing this firm belief for our beloved state. In anticipation of
Human Rights Day on December 10, 2011, we invite individuals and organizations across the state to review and sign our petition in support of equal rights for all Tennesseans: 
Equal access, equal opportunity, and equal protection are basic principles of American democracy reaffirmed again and again in our Constitution and laws. Discrimination against persons and groups based on factors irrelevant to merit runs counter to these traditions, hinders individual achievement, and produces social conflict.  
We support the principle of equal protection and oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as well as any discrimination based on the current classes protected in federal and state law.

We call on the State of Tennessee to protect individuals and groups from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, education, financing and public accommodations.

We support the prerogative of local governments in Tennessee to adopt laws and policies that exceed the state in protecting individuals and groups from discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  
We can only move forward together in Tennessee. Discrimination is an obstacle on the path to individual prosperity and economic growth that benefits us all.  
According to our rights under the Tennessee Constitution, we “apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances,” and we call on all Tennesseans who value basic fairness and equal protection to join us.
Click HERE to sign the petition in support of the above statement.

Then invite your friends, family, minister, church, employer, union, local chamber of commerce, community organization, neighborhood association or other group to make their support official. Refer them to this easy-to-remember link to the statement at

Many thanks to Chris Sanders, TEP Nashville Committee Chair, for authoring this statement of belief.

Use this QR Code to post in areas frequented by equality advocates: