Ways Forward for Tennessee: Rachel Held Evans and S.E. Cupp

The leadership of the Tennessee Equality Project is always thinking about how the equality of LGBT people can move forward in our deeply RED state. 

Two recent pieces from papers on opposite coasts might offer some suggestive paths.

One is a Washington Post profile of Evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans of Dayton, Tennessee.  The other is an opinion piece in The Seattle Times by Republican commentator S.E. Cupp.

*I should note that the recommendation to read both pieces is not a full endorsement.  TEP doesn't endorse a particular religion and there are doubtless things Cupp has written and said with which we'd disagree.  But I do recommend you read both pieces.

Evans offers us a voice with national reach from one of the most socially conservative areas of Tennessee and from a point of view deeply immersed in Evangelicalism, the dominant religious paradigm in Tennessee.  The maps at this link, for example, show Tennessee to be over 50% Evangelical Protestant.  Understanding how Evans became an ally and how she talks about LGBT issues COULD be illuminating for the discussions we need to have in Tennessee.

Cupp, by contrast, is a familiar voice in national politics.  She makes a "numbers" and "manners" case for conservatives (the dominant political ideology in Tennessee) embracing those who support marriage equality.  Of course, our issues go beyond marriage equality (or Marriage PLUS, as we say at TEP).  But the case is relatable.  Cupp talks about a recent visit to Tennessee, noting:

A few weeks ago, I was in Tennessee speaking to a group of college students. After the lecture, one young woman came up to me and said: “I want to thank you. Last year, my younger brother came out. Your perspective on gay marriage showed me that I wasn’t any less conservative for accepting and supporting him. I want to be both, and you gave me that permission.”

We need more messengers in front of more audiences in Tennessee who can say these things from within Evangelical and conservative circles. 

Neither Evans nor Cupp offers nor would claim to offer a total blueprint for moving Tennessee forward.  But it would be foolish to ignore the clues they provide.



Family Action using Tennessee Bible debate to stoke flames of discrimination and build case for RFRA

On Thursday the Tennessee Senate decided not to pass the legislation that would have designated the Bible as Tennessee's official state book.  Many Christians in the Legislature argued that passing the bill would have denigrated the Bible.

But the result has displeased the Family Action Council, as Tom Humphrey reports.    And it doesn't take long before they argue for the ability of businesses to refuse service to LGBT people.  From the piece quoted by Humphrey:

…The sooner we wake up to the myth of neutrality the better. Neutrality is the mantra of those who would use it until such time as they suppress the reigning orthodoxy of the views with which they disagree. When those people succeed, they abandon neutrality in order to maintain control of the new orthodoxy. If you don’t believe me, go ask the florists, bakers, and T-shirt makers who have run into the “neutrality” of those who advocate for same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality as a civil right.

And what is the legislation that allows businesses to refuse service?  RFRA!  Family Action is on a warpath to advance such legislation.  They are thinking about it and preparing for it constantly.

We have to be ready, too!  You can help by becoming an investor in our RFRA Wedding Cake Emporium "startup" at this link

One final point.  The LGBT community and our allies are a cross-section of the wider population.  There are people of a variety of faiths including every kind of Christianity and people of no faith.  It is not equality or failure to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee that harms religion.  Hate and discrimination are the problem.  Many millennials have left religion because of anti-LGBT rhetoric and practices

No one on our side is trying to destroy anyone's faith.  Trying to use faith to achieve official state recognition or to discriminate are the real problems. 

We stand for a Tennessee where everyone's conscience is free of state interference and where everyone is free to live fully without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  We need your help to work towards that goal.


TEP on the Road: Knoxville and Sewanee

While the Legislature has been debating the Bible this week, TEP has been on the road across the state organizing for the equality victories to come.

Knoxville:  We started the week in Knoxville for a Freedom to Marry panel with partners like the Lambda Law Society at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the Campaign for Southern Equality.  You can read more about it here.  It was a fascinating look at the long movement for marriage equality and a frank discussion of all the work that remains long after we win the freedom to marry in Tennessee.


Sewanee:  Later in the week we headed down I-24 to Sewanee for the University of the South's Breaking the Silence events.  It was a productive discussion with students about how they can make a difference in the movement for equality.  We are grateful to have them as new partners. 

TEP believes every part of our state is critical to the movement for equality.


Coming Up:  We plan to meet with hundreds of people this year during the Summer of Love tour that starts in June. To face the challenges ahead, we must unite.  We want to be where you are.

One of the challenges we are sure to face is a renewed RFRA/Turn the Gays Away bill next year.  We will prepare for months leading up to January 2016 when the Legislature returns.  You can help make sure we have the resources we need at this link.

Preparing to win...that's what we're doing because it's what you deserve!


Why we must make POLICY a priority in elections

publicpolicy2.pngThis year Memphis, Knoxville, Nashville, and many other cities around the state will hold elections for their key city officials--mayor, council, etc.  Next year the country elects a president.

We all have gut feelings about candidates and those matter.

We must also develop our policy I.Q. when we're assessing candidates.  What do we need?  What will they try to do?  And what can realistically be accomplished?  These three questions help get us to smart policy questions, conversations, and finally to an agenda. 

A lack of policy focus puts us behind.  Vague hopes of inclusion do not accomplish inclusion.  We need specifics so we can shape the conversation and, therefore, the outcome.

The Past is a Guide:  Being friends with candidates and liking them is a fine thing.  In itself, it is an insufficient recipe for advancing policy.  One need look no further back than 1999 and 2003 in Nashville when our community hoped a candidate who went on to win would help our community with a non-discrimination ordinance.  It didn't happen...for a number of reasons.  But we can contrast 2003 with 2007 and 2011 when the policy conversations were clear.  The result?  Two non-discrimination ordinances and a partner benefits ordinance.  One sees similar results in Memphis and Knoxville where vital policy conversations took place.

COMING SOON:  In late April, TEP will announce our municipal policy agenda for the next four years so that we can shape conversations as our members and allies look for candidates to support in key city races. 

Ask your candidates questions.  And ask questions that come within their scope of authority.  A city council cannot bring marriage equality to a state.  It's great if a candidate is supportive of the issue.  But we need to ask local officials about things they can do something about.  And we look forward to doing just that!

War, Death, and the Next Battle for Equality

Headlines get stranger every day.  Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson thinks marriage equality could ignite a new civil war. A Texas pastor suggested that opponents of marriage equality should fight until they die.

But who declared this war and who is actually dying?  Loads of state legislation justifying discrimination steeped in the guise of faith should give you a clue.  But what if the conflict actually takes a violent turn, as the rhetoric suggests?  Oh, wait.  There already IS a body count.  Transgender women of color are murdered at an incredibly high rateOur community has higher suicide rates because we are coping with lack of acceptanceLGBT students are physically and verbally bullied at high rates in our schoolsAnd let's not forget health disparities

What are they thinking? One hopes that, as the LGBT community gains legal equality and social affirmation, all these harms will decline.  But until that time and likely afterwards, there will be dedicated groups in our country who seem to believe that if life is harder for LGBT people we'll have an incentive to stop being who we are.  At the very least, they don't want to support "that lifestyle."  So some folks are going to dig in as long as they can.

What can we expect?  I think we can expect a RFRA in Tennessee next year.  Our opponents are already planning for one.  We will probably see bills related to allowing elected and other government officials to opt out of serving our community.  We could see more anti-transgender bathroom bills.  We may see outbreaks of violence.  There are a lot of hate groups in Tennessee, after all.  I could tell you that I think it will all even out and get better, and I personally believe it will.  But the fact is that I don't know.  There could be many years of organized resistance to equality for LGBT people and we could see some reversals. 

The Path Forward:  I think desperation tactics on the far Right will generate greater connection within the LGBT community and lead to more allies coming out for the cause.  So we need to be ready to turn these acts of extreme opposition into a deeper connection for the long haul, a broader and stronger network.  We need to build the movement to outlast our legal victories because that is the movement that will outlast the opposition and allow us to thrive.


What is this Summer of Love Tour thing?


With a marriage decision likely coming from the Supreme Court in June, it will be a turning point for our community.  What happens after marriage equality?  How do we reach areas of the state like rural areas we haven't been reaching.  After all, the needs of rural LGBT people need to be addressed

The Summer of Love Tour will launch in June to help meet these needs.

The tour will have two legs--the I-24 leg covering Clarksville to Chattanooga and the I-40/I-81 leg covering Memphis to the Tri-Cities.  Our focus will be on smaller towns that we don't usually reach. 

We hope to (a) connect LGBT people and allies to one another, (b) connect people in smaller towns to the wider movement for equality in the state, (c) bring much needed programming like Tennessee Ready for Marriage on DAY ONE, SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee, and Equality Means Business to every part of the state to increase the safety and power of our community.

The average cost per stop is about $200.  We hope to fund the tour during the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee's The Big Payback event on May 5 and Give OUT Day on May 21.  We hope to raise a total of $6000 for the tour during these two giving events.

If you or your company would like to be a sponsor of the Summer of Love Tour, contact us at chris@tnequalityproject.com .

If you live in a small town in Tennessee and want to help host the event (no donation required) in your town, you can also contract us at chris@tnequalityproject.com .  Include the name of your city in your email. 

TN Mini Indy/Counseling Discrimination bill taken off notice

The mini Indiana-style/Counseling Discrimination bill has been taken off notice by the House sponsor. 

When the sponsor spoke before the subcommittee yesterday, he cited "a very vocal group of folks in America" and noted that he has "been here long enough to know when a piece of legislation is not going to move."  WSMV has more on the story here

Though it is not completely dead, the bill appears to be done for this year.  We are grateful for all the calls and emails you sent.  We appreciate everyone who came to Advancing Equality Day on the Hill and everyone who wrote letters to the editor of your local papers.  Of course, we also have to note the incredible work of our lobbyist, Jenny Ford, in coordinating our strategy throughout the session with allies.

Your support makes it possible for us to combine professional lobbying and grassroots responses to negative bills like this.  Please, consider contributing to help us continue to be a voice for equality on the Hill

What does your investment do?  It will allow us to prepare for a major, full-scale Indiana-style RFRA bill that our opponents want to try to introduce again next year.  It will take the summer and fall to put structures in place to defend ourselves against it.  Any amount is welcome

Thank you for all you do to advance equality in Tennessee.

The mini-"Indiana"-style bill in Tennessee you should know about

When Indiana Governor Pence signed the RFRA/religious refusal/license to discriminate bill, suddenly everyone in the country knew about it.

We've got a mini-version in Tennessee that not many people know about--the Counseling Discrimination bill.  And it's up for a key test on Wednesday.

HB566 would allow students in counseling, psychology, and social work to turn away clients based on the student's sincerely held religious beliefs.  Sound familiar?  It should.  It is exactly the kind of language used in the bigger RFRA/Turn the Gays Away bills.

IMPACT OF THE BILL:  This bill is bad news, even though the damage would not be as extensive.  It could jeopardize the accreditation and hence the value and marketability of our counseling, psychology, and social work degree programs in Tennessee.  It represents bad education because students won't be exposed to the full range of clients.  And it's bad for clients because it adds stigma at a time when they are seeking help. 

WEDNESDAY IS KEY:  The bill is up on Wednesday, April 1, in what we believe really is the final meeting of a House subcommittee.  It is number 23 on the calendar.  We've heard they've reserved the room for the whole afternoon starting at Noon, which indicates they plan to go through the entire list of bills up for consideration. 

STOP THE BILL:  We need to stop the bill in this subcommittee.  What can we do?

1.  Email the subcommittee and members of the full committee and ask them to vote NO.  Use this link

2.  Call the members of the full committee and leave them messages asking them to vote NO. 

3.  Consider attending the subcommittee meeting at Noon on Wednesday in Legislative Plaza Room 31.  Wear purple if you can.

4.  Fuel the fight.  Consider a monthly donation to TEP

We are grateful for all your support and your efforts to defeat the bill. 


Counseling Discrimination bill up in House subcommittee next Wed

The Counseling Discrimination bill by Sen. Hensley and Rep. DeBerry is up in House Education subcommittee next Wednesday at Noon.  SB297/HB566 would allow counseling, psychology, and social work students at Tennessee public universities to opt out of serving clients based on a student's sincerely held religious beliefs. 

This bill is clearly targeting the LGBT community.

Here's how you can fight back.

*Pack the subcommittee meeting and wear purple to show your opposition at Wednesday at Noon.  RSVP for the event here.

*Call every member of the subcommittee.  The image in this post gives you their numbers and a short script.  Leaving a message in the evening work just fine. 

*Consider making a small, monthly contribution so we can sustain our lobbying efforts at this link

*Write a letter to the editor of your local paper about the bill.  Email us at chris@tnequalityproject.com to get talking points, etc.

*You can also sign the petition against the bill at this link.  It will generate an email to all the members of the subcommittee who will vote on the bill.

Thanks for all your support in fighting this discriminatory legislation!



Why are there so FEW anti-equality bills in the Legislature this year?

Compared to other states like Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Florida, and many others, Tennessee is getting something of a breather this year.  Can that really be true?  And if so, why? 

It seems to be true.  The major anti-equality bill we are facing is the Counseling Discrimination bill.  We're not facing bills attacking transgender people in restrooms.  The RFRA/Turn the Gays Away bill is not back.  Don't Say Gay and License to Bully...no appearance.  So we have a real chance to focus on fighting the Counseling Discrimination bill.  And fight it we must!  Remember that in 2013 it passed the full Senate.  It could happen again and reignite momentum against LGBT people at the Legislature.

Why is it true?  Let's break down the possible reasons.  And it's probably a combination of all of them.

  • Waiting.  The far Right might be waiting until the Supreme Court rules on marriage to unleash bills or they could be waiting to amend bills this session.
  • Already Tried.  Unfortunately for those of us in Tennessee, we've already seen almost every negative bill you could imagine.  We've already faced down the Police the Potty bill for transgender people.  We fought Don't Say Gay four sessions.  License to Bully was a few years ago.  Turn the Gays Away / RFRA--so last year. 
  • Other Priorities.  The debates this year in Tennessee are about Medicaid expansion, educational issues like Common Core and vouchers, and taxes.
  • Other Targets.  Maybe the Legislature is slowly leaving behind (for the time) its LGBT obsession, or at least putting it on the shelf, while it turns to reproductive health attacks, religious minorities, and so on.  Of course, all these issues affect LGBT people! 
  • Once Bitten, Twice Shy.  When the majority caucus of the State Senate launched the Turn the Gays Away /RFRA bill with an official press release last year, I can honestly say I was never more afraid.  But we fought back with biting media showing the impact in East, West, and Middle Tennessee, helped bring to bear an impressive group of business associations against the bill, and generated hundreds of phone calls to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which made an impression.  Legislators may have decided they needed a break. 

Whatever the reasons, I don't expect the partial reprieve to last.  So what do you do while anti-equality forces rest?  You prepare.  How?

  • Phone Calls.  Be ready to make those phone calls when the Counseling Discrimination bill moves.
  • Meet.  We're focusing heavily on conversations about the bill and discrimination during Advancing Equality Day on the Hill on Tuesday.  And we have great coverage of the Legislature this time!
  • Organize Statewide.  Our regional committees in every part of the state are running stronger than ever.  We're growing in places where there had been a decline.  As momentum toward marriage equality builds, more people are getting involved across the state. 
  • The Message.  We take more media calls, write more op-eds, and pitch more stories than any other LGBT organization in the state.  We're going to shape the conversation while the opposition merely reacts to marriage and other national developments.
  • Fuel the Fight.  We've got a bunch of issues that need in work in Tennessee--from hate violence to bullying in schools to job discrimination.  When you contribute a little each month, you keep us going for the battles ahead. 


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