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, December 30, 2012

Fighting for our lives, our jobs, and safe schools: 2012 in review

2012 was a year without rest for Tennessee's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.  The fight was nonstop.

TEP celebrated some of 2012's highlights in September at Olympus

Fighting for our lives:  The year began with the news that Phillip Parker, a gay teenager from Middle TN, had taken his life after relentless bullying in school.  The news followed closely upon the story of Jacob Rogers who met a similar fate in December 2011.  These two deaths made discussion of the Don't Say Gay and the License to Bully bills in the Legislature even more poignant.  Other legislation came with threats.  Rep. Richard Floyd introduced the Police the Potty bill this year targeting transgender people.  His method of gaining support for the bill was to threaten to "stomp a mudhole" in transgender people who might happen to use a fitting room or restroom near one of his family members.  Fortunately cooler heads prevailed in the Senate and the bill went nowhere.  Another safety issue that caused concern in 2012 was the rise in hate crimes based on sexual orientation in Tennessee, as reported by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.  Too few of our neighbors in Tennessee failed to understand that the Chick-fil-A controversy was also a life and death matter for us.  Aided by the media, they lulled themselves into thinking it was a free speech/consumer choice issue.  For us, it was about the millions of dollars funneled by the company and its leaders to anti-equality organizations.  That's what the rallies in Clarksville and Memphis were about.

Fighting for our jobs:  2012 saw significant action on the employment non-discrimination front with Knoxville and Memphis both passing ordinances protecting their city government employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  State Senator Jim Kyle and Rep. Brenda Gilmore sponsored a bill to reverse HB600 of 2011 to return to cities and counties the ability to apply their non-discrimination ordinances to contractors.  The bill failed in the Senate State and Local Government Committee, but Nashville Mayor Karl Dean endorsed the bill with a letter to the committee and Metro Nashville Councilman Anthony Davis spoke eloquently on behalf of the bill during the committee meeting.  With no progress at the state level, TEP with a host of cosponsors held rallies in Memphis, Cookeville, and Nashville in December to urge President Obama to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  One of the oddest moments in the discussion of job discrimination in Tennessee involved a few county Republican parties criticizing Governor Bill Haslam for retaining or hiring gay and Muslim employees.  Despite the criticism, Governor Haslam stood by his employees. Our freedom to work is very much a contested issue in Tennessee.

Fighting for safe schools:  As I mentioned, we faced horrible legislation this year--the License to Bully bill and the Don't Say Gay bill. We were pleased that neither passed, but that result didn't come without significant work.  We lobbied, emailed, phoned, packed committee meetings, commented in the media, brought in Dennis Shepard, father of the late Matthew Shepard, to speak at a press conference at the Capitol.  One bright spot in the legislative matters related to education was Governor Haslam's veto of a bill that would have punished Vanderbilt University for its all comers non-discrimination policy for campus organizations.  The struggle for safe schools also took place in individual public school districts around the state.  A West TN principal told gay students they were going to Hell and then suddenly she wasn't the principal any longer.  Citizens of Cheatham County fought for safe schools reforms before their board of education.  Though the board didn't adopt their proposals or even give them a proper hearing, Sen. Bill Ketron did incorporate their suggestion for reporting the number of bullying incidents into his anti-bullying bill that passed this year.  Students around the state worked for Gay-Straight Alliances...without much success in many cases, I'm afraid. There remains much to do to protect students from bullying...and from our Legislature.

Cheers for the victories of 2012! They were monumental, but they didn't come without struggle, loss, and a lot of pain along the way.  A toast to all those who fought.  You made progress in a state where it practically counts as a miracle.

Here's to new opportunities to advance equality in 2013!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What happens when we discover the cause of sexual orientation?

The recent UT study which used mathematical modeling to show links between epi-markers on genes and sexual orientation led me to raise questions with Darrell Greene on Fox 13 in Memphis last night:

This new report revisits an old question: What causes sexual orientation? I personally side with nature over nurture as a cause along with many other gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Others claim they had a choice. This study also raises new questions:

  • Whether sexual orientation is determined by genes or epi-markers on genes, what do we do when and if that question is settled?
  • What would parents do, if their doctor tells them that an epi-marker test projected they will have a gay or lesbian child?
  • What if we had the medical technology to ensure that certain epi-markers were "switched on" for a particular orientation?
  • Would such knowledge lead to genetic engineering to eliminate homosexuality or bisexuality in newborns? 

After struggling with homophobia for many years, I finally came to the conclusion that a person's orientation is a morally neutral phenomenon. In my personal experience, I find being gay to be a gift. Being gay brings a perspective that enriches my life and career. I believe it would be wrong to terminate a pregnancy if parents learn that that unborn child will be gay, lesbian or bisexual. I also think it would be unethical to apply "treatments" to an unborn child that would ensure heterosexuality.

Our society needs to explore these matters more deeply before a cause for sexual orientation is known. We need an ethical framework for new discoveries that will have profound social and political consequences for gay, straight, lesbian and bisexual people. What do you think?

 - Jonathan Cole

Monday, December 10, 2012

Rallies for Equality: Roundup of the Coverage

Sarah Smith of Vanderbilt Lambda addresses the Nashville rally
Although we're still waiting for the Washington Blade piece, here's a roundup of some of the coverage of the Rallies for Equality that took place yesterday in Memphis, Cookeville, and Nashville:

Out & About Newspaper with story, photos, and video.

Tennessean piece with comments by Austin Peay State University GSA's Ryan Whipkey.

Fox17 coverage focused on safe schools issues in Tennessee and featured the comments of Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet High School student Gray Alexander. Now begins the waiting game to see whether the Don't Say Gay, License to Bully, and other negative education bills will be filed in the 108th General Assembly.

Barbara Stover, Darren Crawford, and Janet Moore in Cookeville (photo by R. G. Cravens)
Blurbs by WSMV and Newschannel5.

The TEP Shelby County Committee has posted photos from the Memphis rally on their Facebook page.  

Kal Dwight at the Memphis rally
To sign the petition urging President Obama to sign the executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity among federal contractors, go to .

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Observations from the University of Memphis Faculty Senate Meeting

Yesterday, the University of Memphis Faculty Senate voted on two motions.  The first was to request that the Tennessee Board of Regents investigate the impact on our ability to compete for faculty in a hiring market where most other public universities offer same sex partner benefits.  That motion passed 33-0.  The second motion was to draft our own motion in support of offering same sex partner benefits to University of Memphis employees as University of Tennessee has done.  The second motion passed 30-3. 

As a University of Memphis faculty member, I was thrilled.  It was wonderful to see thirty- three faculty representatives, who had discussed this with their various departments, vote on equality and equality won. 

As a LGBT rights activist, I was completely flummoxed.  I came to the meeting as an observer, but I was carrying a notepad of talking points from our long fight here in Tennessee to promote workplace non-discrimination.  I had facts, statistics, and logical arguments ready to counter the opposition.  I even had a few select Bible verses on hand to use if needed.

I was flummoxed because, for the first time in Tennessee, I didn’t need any of it.

I cannot begin to tell you how disconcerting the whole thing was to me.  There is no comparison to listening to a room full of PhDs quibble on, not the basic premise that same sex benefits should be extended, but on Robert’s Rules of Order and committee procedure for drafting the motion, as opposed to listening to the often hateful and vile rhetoric spewed in front of the City Council or the County Commission.  This was a gathering of educated, thoughtful people who may or may not personally support the LGBT community for religious or philosophical reasons, but who categorically rejected the idea that discrimination in the workplace is acceptable.  

It was the most anti-climactic discussion of LGBT rights I have ever been a part of, and that in itself was wonderful.  Thoughtful, educated, rational people quietly agreeing that discrimination is wrong, and wanted to make a very public statement that discrimination is wrong.

The motions will not change state law.  The Tennessee Board of Regents is subject to the whims of the Legislature, and that is a fight that will not stop until we vote out the majority of the social conservatives in elected office. 

Yesterday was nice.  It was really nice.  Yesterday I realized what it would be like to go before a Tennessee Legislature full of thoughtful, educated, rational people.  Yesterday made it clear that we have to work even harder to make the 2014 elections a referendum, not on LGBT rights, but on educated, rational representation and statesmanship.  We need to work to elect representatives in this state that, regardless of their personal beliefs about gay people, understand that discrimination under the law against any group is not acceptable in a rational, law-based, civil society.

So gird your loins, LGBT activists.  It is time to get busy for 2014.  It is time to find thoughtful, educated, rational people to send to Nashville, and to work to send them there.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Memphis, Cookeville, Nashville Rally for Equality/federal contractor executive order Dec 9

The Tennessee Equality Project has organized rallies for equality in Memphis, Cookeville, and Nashville to take place on December 9 to call on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors and to call on the Legislature to end discriminatory legislation when it convenes in January.

The Memphis Rally takes place at 2:00 p.m. in the plaza in front of the federal building in Memphis.  More information can be found at this link

The Cookeville Rally takes place at 1:00 p.m. outside the Putnam County Courthouse in Cookeville.  More information can be found at this link.

The Nashville Rally takes place at 2:00 p.m. at the War Memorial Plaza in Nashville.  More information can be found at this link.  

Additional cosponsors of these rallies include the following organizations:  Austin Peay State University Gay/Straight Alliance, Out & About Newspaper, Tennessee Tech Lambda, Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce, PFLAG Nashville, Greater Nashville Prime Timers, GLSEN Middle TN, Metro Human Relations Commission, Nashville Pride, OutCentral, Just Us at Oasis Center, PFLAG Maryville, Human Rights Campaign Nashville Steering Committee, and CHOICES: Memphis Center for Reproductive Health.

TEP started a petition at the White House petition site to urge the President to sign the federal contractor non-discrimination executive order.  It can be found here.  

In 2011 Metro Nashville passed a contractor non-discrimination ordinance only to see it nullified by the Legislature the same year.  The presidential executive order is best chance to achieve job protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in states like Tennessee in the immediate future until Congress can take up the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

TEP calls on on other states and cities to hold similar rallies and spread word about the petition to increase public support for the executive order.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Key step in ending job discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people

Word has it over the last week that the national organizations that serve the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community are going to press for an executive order from President Barack Obama to bar job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity among federal contractors.

Tennessee Equality Project is wholly supportive of this move.  Such an executive order would touch thousands of firms and hence millions of employees across the country, including people who work in Tennessee.

Tennesseans have a particular interest in this issue.  In 2011 the Metro Nashville Council passed a contractor non-discrimination ordinance that did the same thing as the requested executive order but with Metro Government contractors.  Unfortunately the Legislature passed SB632/HB600 that not only nullified that ordinance but robbed every city and county in the state of the ability to do the same thing when awarding their procurement dollars.

If you're not sold on the idea that it would help people in Tennessee, then I'm not going to try to oversell the proposal.  But it's out there and there's something you can do to help.

You can sign this petition at the White House petition site.  And you can email it to your friends and post it on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.  It will help grow citizen support for the lobbying effort our national organizations are pursuing.

Nope, it's not as dramatic as the petitions calling for secession, but it's far more constructive. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Is secession an equality issue?

Secession petitions have filled the White House petition website, including one from Tennessee that reached the required number to receive some sort of response from the administration. 

Should the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community be concerned?  Well, there's little chance of actual secession coming from these petitions, but I think it's worth watching carefully as this aspect of the conservative movement evolves. 

Here's one comment that came shortly after the Chattanooga Times Free Press posted a question about Tennessee secession on its Facebook page:

There are so many questions yet to be asked, or for that matter, so many answers we need. Will there be gays in this new nation that Tennessee joins? I'm not advocating that we "throw-out" the gays, but a fresh start is a fresh start. What about abortion? I think this new nation that we form should outlaw all abortions and abortion by-products, thus forcing our women to obey the men. Am I saying that women will be viewed under men in this new nation? No, not at all, but men should hold their women to a higher standard in order to form a more prefect union.
Do these views represent the views of everyone who has signed these petitions?  No, they don't.  But how will we know what the movement is about until the views get clarified publicly?  
And we haven't seen much of that from those who might speak for the neo-secessionist movement.  We haven't even seen much from our own elected officials on the topic or from progressive organizations.  Governor Haslam has said that secession petitions aren't valid and Sen. Mae Beavers has expressed some sympathy, but that's about as far as it goes.  
 Most of the reporting has focused on which states have petitions and how far along they are toward the 25,000 signature threshold.   
So we have a real absence of response.  Not good.  Ignoring the Tea Party didn't work, certainly not in Tennessee where the movement helped pass a state law that nullified Metro Nashville's 2011 contractor non-discrimination ordinance.
Shouldn't we press adherents of these petitions on their motives, reasons, and arguments?  Shouldn't we ask what values would drive these independent states they call for?  Shouldn't we ask, given the quotation above, who matters, who has rights, who doesn't?  
Some of the signers are no doubt simply signaling a protest about their view of the state of our country and we may find that some wish to debate the right of states to secede.  But legal theories aren't the point.  The point is why would anyone even contemplate secession.
For most gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people the prospect of secession can only be scary or absurd.  For our community, the promise of America--the UNITED States--is our hope for full equality under the law, a hope that is finally bearing fruit in the last few years with real progress on federal legislation, the election of out candidates, and four wins at the ballot on marriage measures.    
We shouldn't get mired in the esoteric debates on whether states have the right to secede.  We need to stay on message and ask why.  What kind of society is it that the petition signers wish they could create or that they think they've lost?  And can we articulate a different vision of America that is more inclusive and hopeful?  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Memphis remembers transgender brothers and sisters while seeking to educate

Tennesee Equality Project's Shelby County Steering Committee, in partnership with Perpetual Transition, is pleased to invite you to a week of moving, informative, and exciting events which will help us all learn about transgender people and gender expression in safe environments. Please join us for all of these free, deeply moving, and informative sessions and expand your heart with information and understanding. The not to be missed events:

Tuesday, November 13 - "Documenting a Journey: FTM Transition on YouTube." 6:30 p.m. Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, 892 South Cooper Street. 

Thursday, November 15 - "Papers Please: A workshop on identity documentation focusing on passports" 6:30 - MGLCC

Saturday, November 17 - Transvision: Express Yourself seminar - sessions of learning opportunities and experiences designed to increase information and understanding accross the GLBT and ally community. 9:00 to 2:30 - lunch included - First Congregational Church, 1000 South Cooper Street.

Perpetual Transition held an early Transgender Day of Remembrance on Sunday, November 11 at First Congregational Church. Group leader Casey Lanham gave a moving presentation during this service. His remarks are reprinted here with permission:

Good evening, and welcome to the Transgender Day Of Remembrance. I am Casey Lanham, a co-founder and current co-facilitator of Perpetual Transition, a local transgender support group which hosts this service every year. Before we begin tonight’s service by setting a more meditative tone, I would first like to share with you the history and mission of TDOR.
TDOR is an annual candlelight vigil held for transgender and gender non-conforming victims of violence. It developed from the Remembering Our Dead web project, both of which were founded by the San Francisco trans activist, Gwen Smith, in 1999. TDOR is held every November to honor Rita Hester, a daughter, a sister, and a friend to many who was murdered in an especially violent way by an unknown attacker in her apartment in November 1998. To date, like most anti-trans murders, hers has never been solved.
Rita Hester, from Allston, MA, was well liked and admired in her community. And community is not reducible to the fact that she was transgender, or that she was African-American, or that she was 34 years old, or that she was from around Boston. All of those things about her are true, but she, like everyone else on this list, was so much more than that. Rita was musical and is described as having a beautiful, lilting voice. She was active in Boston’s rock and roll scene, where she played paid gigs, and was known to command attention when she was present. In both transgender and music communities, Rita was popular, kind, and outgoing. Her mother, her siblings, and several of her friends, among the almost 250 supporters who came to the first TDOR vigil in honor of her, said that it didn’t matter how rotten your day had been. If Rita was around, her bubbly demeanor and lively smile would lift you straight out of whatever foul mood had taken over you. That is why her murder shook her community so hard. Who would have wanted to hurt someone like her? The pain of losing Rita so suddenly was complicated further by the way her tragic death was covered by the media. Although she lived her life and was treated by others as a woman, the news used male pronouns, a name that did not represent who she was, and called her a transvestite, a word she did not use to identify herself. They claimed she was living a “double life” by being a woman, but that is not what people who loved and knew her best said. We who are here in this room know that she was just being who she was, and that was misunderstood by people who couldn’t accept her as the woman she knew herself to be. Finally, they emphasized the fact that Rita had been doing sex work, which compounded the myths of a double life, but what they did not tell people was the reality of her situation. While they wasted no time in labeling her a prostitute, they paid no attention to why she was doing sex work out of economic necessity. She was doing it to survive, and because she had been pushed out of more conventional work. Like many of the people in this room tonight, she applied for job after job after job, only to be denied each time. Even her winning smile couldn’t win over a potential employer. No one, even in relatively progressive Massachusetts, wanted to hire a transgender woman, particularly a transgender woman who was African American. If Rita wasn’t being misrepresented or maligned, she was being ignored. She was murdered a month after Matthew Shepard and was quickly overlooked as the news outlets focused their attention toward the otherwise unremarkable little town of Laramie, WY. While we all mourn the loss of Matthew and honor his memory, and while we would never ask that he be forgotten or relegated to a lesser memory, our mission is to remind people who Rita, and all other people whose names we read tonight, were and what injustices happened to them. When people remember Matthew Shepard, we want names like those of our fellow Memphians to also be remembered: Duanna Johnson, Ebony Whitaker, Tiffany Berry, Michelle Hays, John Prowett. We want those who would otherwise be forgotten to be remembered, their lives celebrated. We want to honor their memories, to acknowledge them for who they were. We remember the inner strength that people had, people like Duanna, who refused to be degraded by police officers who called her homophobic and transphobic slurs and beat her for not answering to those words. Duanna, who was normally soft-spoken and laidback in spite of her height and her appearance, said no more and stood up against institutional violence to claim her worth and dignity as a human being. And that is our goal for TDOR.
Pfc. Barry Winchell
We also remember our loved ones who did not identify as transgender, but who suffered gender-based violence and who were mistreated, maimed, and murdered because of their association with us: people like Pfc. Barry Winchell, someone to be doubly remembered this Veterans Days, who was killed because fellow soldiers incorrectly thought he was gay for being in a relationship with Calpernia Addams, a heterosexual woman who is transgender. We acknowledge the interrelation of our struggles: violence is systemic, and racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, and cissexism are all tied together. They are different heads of the same hydra.  

We also remember people who suffered indirectly from anti-trans violence. We remember Dre’Ona Blake, a little Memphis girl who died after being beaten to death by her father, D’Andre Blake, who 2 years earlier bragged to friends and had the gall to confess to police that he murdered Tiffany Berry, a 21 year-old trans woman living in South Memphis. He was released on a $20,000 bond, when bond for murder in Tennessee is normally closer to $100,000, and he has still never been charged, tried for, or done time for killing Tiffany. He was allowed to walk free for 2 years, until he turned his violence on his own daughter. We dare to ask, “Would Dre’Ona be celebrating her 6th birthday this year if her father had been held accountable in the first place for murdering Tiffany, an innocent woman, someone who just happened to be transgender?”   When asked why he killed her, he claimed that he didn’t like the way “it” touched him. It. Sit with that for a minute. It. It. A thing. Non-human. Disposable. Expendable. That is also what Allen Andrade said to police when he beat 18 year-old Angie Zapata, who was trans, to death after they had gone on a date. “I killed it.” Gwen Araujo’s murderers deemed her an “it” when they decided she had been “deceptive” by supposedly not being truthful about who she was. But again, we know that she was being exactly who she was, and given the particularly violent reactions these men had, can you really blame her for not wanting to have that be the very first thing she shared about herself? It. That is how transgender people, especially transgender women of color, and especially those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness, are viewed. Seen as deserving of the lot they receive in life, they die violently, without being memorialized, and continue to be mocked after death. Today we are here to correct that, to stand in stark contrast to the injustice, to the apathy, to the cynicism, and, most importantly of all, to the silence that surrounds this. That is our mission. That is our duty as a community. I’ve spoken at length about remembrance. Indeed, it’s in the title of this event. But what does it mean to remember? How do we go about mourning anyone, let alone hundreds of people from many decades and from around the world who we have never met? We recall that as we hear the over 700 names read tonight, and as we recall that there are many more we have never heard of, each one of them belonged to a person with memories, experiences, stories to tell, and humanity and connections to share. We celebrate the importance of family and friends, of support, love, and community, and how they are the nourishment that sustains each of us. TDOR is not just once a year. We don’t just show up to these services, promise to never forget, and then conveniently let it slip from memory until next November when you receive a call from me to participate in this event again. Today lives with us throughout the year precisely because we cannot afford to forget. Today we commit ourselves to remembering our siblings in community. We set aside this day to hold their names up and breathe a bit of life into them again. It is a day of contemplation, commemoration, and support, where we hold onto some small memory, even if it is only a name or a footnote in the paper, so that they will not be erased as completely as their killers, the media, or institutions would have them. We bring attention to the violence directed against us in epidemic proportions, the silence when it happens, and most importantly, to our dedication and responsibility toward one another. We care, and we are here to show it. I would like to leave you tonight with thoughts from Primo Levi. Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote many books detailing and analyzing his experiences in the extermination camp. In his book, The Drowned and the Saved, he wrote about the fallibility of memory and the paradoxical necessity of witnessing. He talked about the drowned, those who died in the camps, and the saved, those who survived. Levi maintained that telling the story of the drowned is not completely possible because it is only they who could provide the fullest witness to the horrors of what Auschwitz was, and since they did not survive, they are unable to tell their stories. It is therefore the obligation of the saved, Levi says, to be those witnesses since the drowned are no longer with us. He reminds us of the importance of witnessing to things we otherwise find unpleasant: “It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one's mind: this is a temptation one must resist.” And that is the goal of TDOR. It is solemn, and it is mournful, but it endows us with the courage to carry on, to keep memories alive, and to recommit ourselves to one another as a community. Levi said it best: “The aims of life are the best defense against death.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

LGBT community focuses on feeding neighbors while churches waste money on hateful ads

Memphis, TN, November 1, 2012 — In the last week, an anonymous organization claiming the name "Memphis churches of Christ" placed two full-page advertisements in The Commercial Appeal attacking the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Sources tell us that Memphis churches of Christ paid around $15,000 to place these ads in Sunday's and Tuesday’s newspapers. A group by the same name placed similar anti-LGBT ads over the last eight years.

Jonathan Cole of Tennessee Equality Project observed: “The content of the ads is deeply offensive, but I remain a firm believer in the First Amendment right to free speech. While this group is entitled to say what they want, most people reject the divisiveness of the ad’s message because they support inclusion, fairness, decency, equality and diversity in Memphis. It’s hard to watch churches and other religious organizations spending tithes and church offerings on hateful advertising rather than benefiting their church members or assisting those living in poverty in our city.”

The recent ads moved PFLAG mother Lisa Kurtz-Crume to recall these famous words from Mohandas Gandhi: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ."

A coalition of LGBT advocacy groups rejects the example set by this anonymous group."Our organizations have criticized churches who spend money to demean us by suggesting that they focus on caring for the poor and feeding the hungry,” said Will Batts, Executive Director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center. “In response to recent attacks on our community, we're putting our money where our mouths are...and the mouths of those who go hungry. We shall meet hatred with love for our friends and neighbors.”

We call on everyone in the community of Memphis to show their love for their neighbors by making a donation of money or food to the Mid-South Food Bank between now and November 9, 2012.

Make a donation online at

Supporters may also give money or the following needed food items at the Mid-South Food Bank at 239 S. Dudley, Memphis, TN  38104, Mon-Thurs: 8 am - 5:00 pm  Friday: 8 am - Noon: canned meats, including tuna, stews, chicken and dumplings, chili, Spam, soups; Peanut butter; Canned fruits; Canned veggies; Canned 100% fruit juice and any non-perishable item (no glass containers).

The Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center will also accept the above food items between now and Nov. 9 at 892 South Cooper Street in Midtown. The center is open Monday-Friday from 2-9 pm.
Vanessa Rodley of Mid-South Pride encouraged people to participate in the food drive to support their Memphis neighbors: “Hunger can reach anyone and shows no discrimination. What affects one of us can easily affect all of us.”

Advocacy organizations supporting this food drive include

Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center  
Memphis Loves Gays
Mid-South Pride  
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Memphis (PFLAG)
Tennessee Equality Project’s Shelby County Committee

Click the above organizations to visit their website.

For more information:
Jonathan Cole - Tennessee Equality Project - 901-301-3306 - 

Will Batts - Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center - 901-278-6422 - 

Monday, October 29, 2012

How Chik-fil-A Day helped Tennessee Equality Project win LGBT-inclusive workplace protections in Memphis

Quite a headline, right? Leaves you scratching your head and reading further to see how contributions to Tennessee Equality Project make a difference right here at home in Tennessee.

Union Ave. Kiss-In at Chik-fil-A
I don't have to retell the story that was Chik-fil-A founder Dan Cathy's funding of anti-gay initiatives. I don't even have to remind you of the details of former Governor Mike Huckabee's “Chik-fil-A Day” in support of the antigay teaching and philosophy now associated with Chik-fil-A. We all remember the hurt we felt when we saw family members, friends, co-workers, colleagues, and associates stand in line or wait at a drive-through to give money to that anti-GLBT organization. In spite of the negativity about Chik-fil-A, the GLBT community met the challenge with grace and gumption, determination and spirit, fun and fabulousness, and humor and gravitas. In Memphis, there was a lovely kiss-in that represented nothing but the love and self respect that is winning the day in this country.

But there is more. I issued a call to our TEP supporters and friends asking them to react positively to the negativity. Simply put, TEP leaders challenged supporters donate the price of a chicken sandwich to TEP to further the work of equality in Tennessee. And, wow, did you ever! More than $1700 in response! So on that day filled with gloom and doom, many of you soothed your hurt with the salve of activism. For that, TEP thanks you all and hopes that you found some measure of peace from having participated in this sweet little moment of giving.

Making new history in Memphis
But wait! There's even more. Sometimes people donate money to a cause and never know if that money is put to good use. So, I wanted to share with you how TEP’s Chik-fil-A fundraising helped change Tennessee. On September 16, 2012, the TEP Shelby County Committee held a kick-off rally at the National Civil Rights Museum to announce our support for an amendment to the pending nondiscrimination ordinance. The amendment would prohibit unfavorable employment decisions based upon sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. The rally occurred in the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum, but that privilege was not free. In fact, there was a substantial cost involved in renting the space, and I am proud to announce that cost was underwritten by the Chik-fil-A Day donations to TEP. Your donations to TEP in protest of the Chik-fil-A Day directly contributed to a wonderful rally which energized the community for equality.

Virginia Awkward, Minister Davin Clemmons
and Father Joseph Wallace-Williams at the
Equal Protection for All Rally
By now you know what happened on October 16, 2012. Memphis entered the 21st century by passing a fully inclusive employee nondiscrimination ordinance by a vote of 9 to 4. The ordinance passed despite robocalls from the opposition and despite Family Action Council of Tennessee's heavy presence. The ordinance won bipartisan support because one person rethought his opinion, reformed it, and shared his private deliberation and change of vote. It passed with a combination of seasoned and freshman leadership. It passed because of the support of straight allies and employee organizations across the city working with the visible support of hearing attendees identifying themselves with the cause of equality. But Chik-fil-A helped too. While so many people and so many events came together to make the perfect storm for passage of Memphis' NDO this time, I wanted to tell you that your contributions actually started the ball rolling. Chik-fil-A funds helped pave the way, and Memphis is a stronger, more vibrant, more welcoming city than it has ever been thanks to you and Dan Cathy.

Now what do we do with the challenge that appeared in Sunday’s Memphis Commercial Appeal?   To build on the success of TEP and counter the ill-advised works and words of others, I invite you to become a sustaining donor at 

- Anne Gullick

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Anti-gay group pays top dollar to be heard, but is anyone listening?

Today's Commercial Appeal features a column written by Councilman Lee Harris about the Memphis Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance (ENDO) he sponsored which added workplace protections for age, disability, national origin, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

"The ordinance forces the City of Memphis to focus on talent, ability and merit. This idea is hardly controversial" writes Harris.

The councilman goes on to explain the mainstream support for the LGBT-inclusive protections in the ordinance:
But, the ordinance also generated support from all corners of our community, from the clergy to congregants, from firefighters to police officers, from gay to straight.

The NAACP supports the ordinance. Its local head nicely crystallized the issue, saying, "Every American must be allowed to contribute to society without facing unfair discrimination on account of race, sex, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Our fight for social justice will continue until all can be protected in the work place."

Mid-South Peace and Justice Center supports the ordinance. The Shelby County Democratic Party supports the ordinance.

The ordinance received support from many city employees. AFSCME, one of the largest public unions in town, supports the ordinance. The Memphis Police Association supports the ordinance. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers supports the ordinance. This isn't the radical element of our community. The city employees, our city unions that support the ordinance are not controversial.
Memphis is in good company in adopting LGBT-inclusive workplace protections when compared to other local employers:
According to the Human Rights Campaign, many Memphians work for employers who have workplace policies in place similar to this one, including First Tennessee; State Farm; SunTrust Banks; AT&T; University of Memphis; Memphis Urban League; Federal Express; Service Master; Hilton Hotels; Harrah's Entertainment; Baker, Donelson law firm; International Paper; Medtronic; Nike; Smith & Nephew and Pinnacle Airlines.  
These companies are hardly a redoubt for fringe liberalism. These companies are not the controversial type.
Despite the broad support for Councilman Harris's ordinance, anti-LGBT opponents of the ordinance are still grumbling that all City of Memphis workers will be treated with fairness and dignity. They are not going away quietly. They continue to believe that workers who want to earn a living, provide for their families and contribute to their community is a radical notion that contradicts G_d and nature. They will say anything to get that point across, and they are willing to pay any price to say it.

An anonymous organization named "Memphis City Churches" placed a full-page advertisement on page A10 in same edition of today's Commercial Appeal. Click here to see the full ad

Memphis City Churches must have paid around $4000* to place this ad in Sunday's newspaper. In fact, I recall them placing anti-gay ads in the Commercial Appeal several times over the years - usually during election season. I remember seeing them in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010.  That's at least $20,000 over 8 years. What a waste!

While the content of today's ad is deeply offensive to most people, I am a firm believer in the First Amendment right to free speech. I used to worry such speech might persuade those who didn't know any better. Not anymore. Most of the ads contain the same content each year. The group regurgitates Scripture onto the page to justify bias and prejudice and cites "prominent authors" without names or recognizable authority of public policy. This brand of patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and heterosexism is losing its appeal. The 9 to 4 vote of the Memphis City Council approving the LGBT-inclusive workplace ordinance is the latest demonstration of where the mainstream is on this issue.

I don't worry about these ads anymore because they offend the common mainstream values that most people share: inclusion, fairness, decency, equality and diversity. The more vociferous they become, the more willing the mainstream is to accept and include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families in society.

This anonymous group is so desperate to be heard they are willing to spend thousands of dollars to reach an audience - an audience who has stopped listening to them. I predict that in coming years, the governing boards of churches and other religious organizations will re-examine the wasteful spending of tithes and church offerings on hateful advertising and actually seek to benefit their church members or those living in poverty in our city. Let's hope they become better stewards of their resources.

- Jonathan Cole

UPDATE (10/30/2012): The same full-page advertisement from Memphis City Churches appeared again in the Oct. 30, 2012 edition of the Commercial Appeal. That's $8000 spent on anti-gay ads in less than a week. Imagine what could be done with the tithes and church offerings used to pay for both ads. How would you use $8000 in Memphis?

*Previous estimates of the ad ranged from $5000 to $15,000, but a better estimate from a knowledgeable source confirmed on 10/29/12 that $3800-4000 was the actual cost range for the ad.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why LGBT involvement in election campaigns matters

I will never forget the date of November 23, 2010 ---  the day that the Memphis City Council failed to pass an employment non-discrimination ordinance by one vote.

I knew back then that we would have to wait until the next term of City Council before we could introduce an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance again. We needed at least one more vote to ensure passage.

Memphis City Councilman
Lee Harris of District 7
The opportunity for that one vote came with the 2011 municipal election. Barbara Swearengen Ware of District 7 who voted against the ordinance declined to run again.  TEP PAC had a chance to support an equality advocate for the open seat. The field of candidates was large, but TEP PAC made the strategic decision to place our hopes in Lee Harris to represent the neighborhoods of North Memphis, Frayser, Uptown, and Mud Island.

TEP PAC's endorsement of Harris motivated LGBT people and their allies to contribute their time, talent and treasure to Harris's campaign. We made phone calls, canvassed neighborhoods, and held fundraising drives to support Lee's election. While many other groups and organizations supported his candidacy, TEP PAC and volunteers helped make a difference in his campaign. Lee won a majority in the first election and then won the runoff election.

Fast forward to the summer of 2012. President Obama and the Shelby County Democratic Party announced their support for marriage equality and full equality for LGBT people. And freshman Councilman Lee Harris approached TEP about re-introducing a non-discrimination ordinance. The rest is history.

I share this story to emphasize the importance of supporting equality advocates running for elected office. One day that candidate will be the elected official who champions equality.

November 6 is a national election. More people turn out to vote for or support a candidate for President, US Congress or the US Senate. But I am here to argue that State and Local elections matter more than most people appreciate. It's hard for one person or a small group to make a noticeable difference in campaigns for President, Congress or Senate. But the example of our support for an equality advocate in a North Memphis City Council district proves that your voice, your volunteer hours, and your financial support make a huge impact in a local election.

Margaret Mead said it best: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Are you ready to make an impact? TEP PAC will be engaged in a statewide Day of Action on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. We'll be supporting equality advocates for elected office knowing that our work is vital to promoting pro-equality public policy in State and local government. We invite you to join us! Visit TEP PAC's Facebook Fan Event Page for the opportunity closest to you. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Watch the Memphis City Council enact an LGBT-inclusive ordinance

Pro-equality advocates outnumbered opponents at the Oct. 16 meeting of the Memphis City Council when council members voted 9 to 4 in favor of an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance for city employees. One month ago, the council approved an amendment adding sexual orientation but omitted gender identity. Amid questions over a potential charter conflict, the council voted to delay action on the amended ordinance for 30 days.

The extra 30 days gave Tennessee Equality Project time to ensure that gender identity was added to the ordinance. We organized our allies and recruited a panel of transgender members of the community to talk with key swing voters on the council. We wanted to make sure that the council understood why TEP and our allies could not leave anyone behind in enacting this ordinance. I am so proud of our efforts and the nine members of the Memphis City Council for hearing our case for full inclusion.

Last Tuesday's hearing on the ordinance was an historic day for Memphis. If you missed the meeting or simply want to hear the debate for a fully inclusive ordinance again, you can watch the following videos.

The non-discrimination ordinance was #12 on the council agenda. Council Chairman Bill Morrison invited public comment on the ordinance. The opposition spoke first. I should warn you that this video contains disturbing distortions and false claims about LGBT people from Family Action Council of Tennessee and others:

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Council members on both sides of the debate praised all of the speakers organized by Tennessee Equality Project for the Sep. 18 and Oct. 16 hearings on the NDO. I think you'll see a vast difference in the tone and tenor of pro-equality advocates when compared to opponents of equality:

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After public input, Councilwoman Janis Fullilove made a motion to add gender identity to the ordinance (Fullilove will be remembered as the first sponsor of the NDO in 2010 and the person who ensured that transgender workers would be protected in the 2012 ordinance). Councilman Lee Harris asked Political Science Professor of Rhodes College Steve Wirls to clarify for the council that the charter allowed them to pass an non-discrimination ordinance that includes non-merit factors like sexual orientation and gender identity. Council members then offered their comments on the proposal. I was particularly moved by Councilman Harold Collins's change of heart on the NDO. When he began reading from Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I knew that the ordinance would pass. Councilman Ford adeptly offered a friendly amendment to Fullilove's motion to define sexual orientation and gender identity to confront the distorted definitions presented by Family Action Council of Tennessee. And Councilman Reid Hedgepeth confronted the hateful ignorance of opponents of equality who threatened him and his family. He even promised to request an FCC investigation of Family Action Council of Tennessee for illegal robocalls which targeted his cell phone. Hedgepeth stands as a shining example of why equality is not partisan issue. Equality is not a value that belongs to Republicans, Democrats, conservatives or liberals. Equality is value cherished by all Americans. Watch these moving developments on the council and the vote to add gender identity to the ordinance:

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After the successful vote to add gender identity, Councilman Lee Harris made a moving speech about how the protections covered in the ordinance were supported by various organizations in the community and shared with many of the largest employers in the Memphis area. The council voted 9 to 4 in favor of the motion. The fully inclusive ordinance gained two new votes: Wanda Halbert and Harold Collins. Councilman Shea Flinn then offered a resolution requesting that the Director of Personnel write policy which reflects the scope of the ordinance to ensure airtight protections. Flinn's resolution passed. Councilman Lee Harris made a for same night minutes to expedite the effectiveness of the ordinance and resolution, but that measure failed.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

TEP applauds Memphis City Council support for inclusion and equality

Memphis, TN, October 16, 2012 — Tennessee Equality Project applauds the Memphis City Council for voting to amend the municipal non-discrimination ordinance to include age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity as factors that may not be used in city employment decisions. Memphis now joins Nashville and Knoxville as Tennessee cities that officially recognize and practice the American values of inclusion, equality and fairness in employment.

On Wednesday morning, City of Memphis employees will wake up to the news that the Memphis City Council values their hard work and ability to do the job. City employees who protect our neighborhoods, fight our fires, remove and recycle our waste, and lend us library books are on their way to being solely judged by their job performance without harmful prejudice. TEP calls on Mayor AC Wharton to sign this ordinance and celebrate the council’s decision.

We thank Councilman Lee Harris for his leadership in sponsoring the non-discrimination ordinance. We are deeply grateful to the council members, community groups, city employees, leaders of the faith community, and the many other advocates who supported equality for City of Memphis employees. Their dream for equality and fairness is now realized in a more inclusive Memphis where workers may earn a living, provide for their families and contribute to their communities without fear of losing or never being hired for a job because of who they are.

We invite equality advocates to give thanks to Memphis City Council members who voted in favor of a fully inclusive ordinance. Copy and paste these email addresses into an email message:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Knoxville City Attorney Ok’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance; Opinion Instructive for Memphis Non-Discrimination Ordinance

From the desk of Councilman Lee Harris:

"There is nothing in [the Knoxville] Charter
which we find to be a definitive and
exclusive list of discriminatory practices."
- Deputy Law Director Ronald E. Mills 
Other Tennessee cities have begun to voice opinions regarding Non-Discrimination. Specifically, in response to inquiry from elected officials in Memphis, the Knoxville City Attorney has opined that their city’s non-discrimination ordinance does not conflict with their Charter. According to the attorney’s opinion, “revisions to various sections of the Knoxville City Code regarding discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation and other factors…do not in any way violate the Knoxville City Charter”. The opinion goes on to say that “there is nothing in [the Knoxville] Charter which we find to be a definitive and exclusive list of discriminatory practices.” A copy of the Knoxville Opinion is attached to this release.

Said County Commissioner Steve Mulroy: “I thought it prudent to check with another big Tennessee city and see how they were able to do it.  Their opinion is instructive.  Their charter and ordinance are virtually identical.  Indeed, the argument that the City Council has authority under the charter is even stronger in Memphis."  Said Councilman Lee Harris: “Knoxville, which is hardly a redoubt of the liberal fringe, is way out in front of Memphis. This city has some serious catching up to do. The Knoxville opinion reminds us that there is nothing serious standing in our way. It’s hard to move city government.  But, other cities have done it and, with any luck, this opinion helps resolve that is no serious reason why we can’t.” Said Jonathan Cole, a leader of the Tennessee Equality Project: “Given the willingness of sister cities to go out a limb and get involved, I’m increasingly confident that nothing can stop us. I am increasingly confident that there are no barriers to adding non-merit factors to the City of Memphis non-discrimination ordinance.”

Councilman Lee Harris: "The Knoxville opinion reminds us
that there is nothing serious standing in our way."
For background, on Tuesday, September 18, Memphis City Councilmen Lee Harris and Shea Flinn sponsored a non-discrimination ordinance that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Discussion ensued over whether the ordinance was permissible under the City of Memphis Charter. Final approval of the ordinance was delayed until Oct. 16. The ordinance, if approved on Oct. 16, provides as follows: “There shall be no discrimination in city employment of personnel because of religion, race, sex, creed, political affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation or other non-merit factors, nor shall there by any discrimination in the promotion or demotion of city employees because of religion, race, sex, creed, political affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, age, disability or other non-merit factors.” A copy of the Non-Discrimination Ordinance is attached. The Knoxville City Charter provides: “No elected official administrator, director, or employee of Knox County shall discriminate against any person in employment or provision of services based upon race, sex, religion, age or nationality without due process of law.” The Memphis City Charter provides: “[T]here shall be no discrimination in the city employment of personnel because of religion, race, sex, creed, political affiliation, or other non-merit factors, nor shall be there any discrimination in the promotion or demotion of city employees because of religion, race, sex creed, political affiliation, or other non-merit factors.” A copy of the relevant portions of the Knoxville Ordinance is attached to this release.

Councilman Lee Harris can be reached at 901-210-4429. Commissioner Steve Mulroy can be reached at 901-603-8779. TEP representative Jonathan Cole can be reached at 901-301-3306.