Legislative preview: What does Tennessee's LGBT community face in January?

One month from today the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes at "high Noon."  What lies ahead for the state's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community?

Negative bills:  2016 could be one of the worst.  Here's what either is coming or could be coming.

*The Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act was filed in September.  It would attempt to nullify the Supreme Court's June marriage equality ruling.

*Various Turn the Gays Away/RFRA bills like those designed to "protect" clergy, businesses, and local officials from having to serve the LGBT community. 

*Anti-transgender bathroom bill.  It hasn't been filed yet, but it may be coming.  It is particularly troublesome because of the danger to which it exposes transgender and gender non-conforming youth.

*Counseling Discrimination.  The bill would allow students enrolled in counseling, psychology, and social work programs at public universities in Tennessee to turn away clients based on their religious beliefs.  The bill was sidelined earlier this year, but it could be back in 2016. 

*Defunding the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's Office of Diversity and Inclusion.  That has come up again just this week

*Local non-discrimination ordinances nullified.  In the unconfirmed rumors section, we would add that there is the possibility of bills being filed to nullify city or county ordinances that protect their own local government employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The choice we have.  Given all the negative legislation coming and given how few resources there are in Tennessee, we have to ask ourselves whether it makes any sense spending time on legislation that is great in terms of its content but has no chance of passing.  In order responsibly to deal with the attacks, we have to spend our time there. 

At the State level, TEP will be focused on beating these negative bills. 

And we've already been working on just that. 

Efforts so far:  When the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act was introduced, we began by defining the perception of it in the media.  We asked Professor Sherry of Vanderbilt Law to offer this op-ed and we contributed our own piece to Huffington Post.  We have canvassed voters in Dickson, Manchester, Maryville, and Bristol in order to find out if there is a message that works with moderate voters in conservative districts.  It turns out there is!

And we opened and have sustained the fight against the anti-transgender bathroom bill.  The TEP Rutherford County Chair, who happens to be from Rep. Hulsey's district, was scanning news coverage when he learned about the bill and helped us get the information out to you statewide.  Hundreds of our members have called and emailed Rep. Hulsey urging him to rethink the bill, which is what he is doing right now.  We also have preemptively generated over 1100 emails to all the members of the State Senate urging them NOT to sponsor a companion bill.  We were also pleased to support the recent rally in Johnson City by bringing up the idea with local organizers, publicizing it dozens of times, and providing media support.

And that is how we'll fight for you when the Legislature convenes in January.  We're going to be smart about how we use our time.  We're going to look at every tactic at our disposal, including some we've never considered before.  But our focus is defending you and defending you well.

I hope you'll consider supporting our legislative work with a contribution of $25 or more at this link.  If you prefer to give a little every month to keep us running strong, you can sign up at this link

Don't forget to RSVP for TEP's 12th annual Advancing Equality Day on the Hill at this link.

Thanks for all you do!


TN Rep Hulsey to introduce bathroom bill targeting transgender students

A week after the disaster with Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, Rep. Bud Bud Hulsey of Kingsport has announced that he is going to introduce a bill preventing transgender students from using the changing rooms and restrooms that correspond to their gender, according to WCYB.  Ironically, he asserts that the bill is about student safety.

NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH.  Transgender students pose NO threat to other students because of their gender identity.  Indeed, it is their own safety that is in danger if the bill passes. 

Contact Rep. Hulsey and let him know he should not file this bill, which the Tennessee Equality Project condemns in the strongest way.

Demand that he not file the bill and that he should meet with members of the transgender community and learn about their real safety needs!

Leave a message for him at (615) 741-2886 .

Email him at rep.bud.hulsey@capitol.tn.gov .

Your voice makes a difference.  The last time a state representative introduced a "police the potty" style bill, the outcry was so great that the Senate sponsor dropped the bill and it failed. 

It's time to get loud NOW!


Canvassers tell all in new expose

One of the best projects we have worked on is canvassing middle-of-the-road voters in conservative districts on the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act.  I think it's a project you should consider supporting with a contribution of $10 or more at the link.

We deliberately chose conservative districts and we avoided cherry-picking liberal voters because we wanted to get a real sense of whether our neighbors in Tennessee back this ridiculous bill.  So far, we are finding that more than half of the people we talk to in person are willing to sign a card to their legislator against it.  I think that's a great impact!

Canvassers have worked in Manchester, Maryville, and Dickson so far.  We are headed back to Maryville this Sunday, Bristol on November 7, back to Manchester on November 14, and back to Dickson on November 15.  If you can't contribute, please consider joining us in one of those locations.

Read what some of our canvassers have to say:

"While Canvassing in Manchester, I realized that we were in a very RED city. Most of our voters we went door to door to were non-Democratic or Republican. I was amazed by the end that more than half of those voters actually said YES they would sign our cards in support of our cause." -Caleb Banks

-"The people I talked to that took the survey and signed the postcard were thankful that there was a group that is bringing awareness to this bill." -Gwen Schablik

-"
Any anxiety that existed before knocking on the doors was eliminated once we realized how supportive the community was of our mission. There were also several people who didn't know about the bill, and they were surprised and frustrated that it wasn't getting more attention.  Being able to educate them on the issue, and allow them an opportunity to voice their concern was incredibly rewarding!" -Leslie Wilson-Charles


This project has clearly been a great way to engage volunteers while also making an impact against a destructive piece of legislation.  Help continue to take the message to every part of Tennessee, to the parts of Tennessee outside our larger cities where it matters.  Support the canvassing project with a contribution of $10 or more today.


Going door-to-door for equality in Tennessee: Why canvassing matters

If you've kept up with Tennessee Equality Project on Facebook, you know we've been going door-to-door in conservative parts of the state talking about the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act

Here's why.  We wanted to know where the people of Tennessee stand on the bill.  It's not a comprehensive poll, but it still gives us important data.  Second, it gives us the chance to find supporters who will contact their own legislators in areas where we might have few members of our own.  Third, it gives our members another political skill.

Data:  Without canvassing, we are at the mercy of polling organizations or guesswork when it comes to the question of whether Tennesseans support discriminatory bills.  We can't guarantee polls will be conducted on the issue or that they'll be accurate.  Canvassing gives us real data to develop a real sense of people's views.   I should note that we picked conservative districts and middle-of-the-road voters deliberately to get out of our progressive bubbles and echo chambers.

Finding supporters:  We hoped, but didn't know for sure, that we would find supporters of our position on the bill when we began.  It's important that legislators in conservative districts hear from their own constituents.  So we started in Manchester and Maryville this past weekend and were pleasantly surprised that most of the people we talked to are opposed to the bill.  Yes, opposed.  We definitely found people who support it, but most people we've talked to in person so far think it's a futile and expensive effort.  AND they were willing to tell their legislators just that!

Gaining skills:  Most of our canvassers so far had never gone door-to-door for politics before this weekend.  Many were nervous and I'm sure they had their doubts.  I think they found that it was easy and they were also encouraged by the response.  They will now be ready to canvass voters on other issues and for political candidates.  When our movement has more skilled canvassers, we're obviously stronger. 

Get involved:  We have two more canvassing events coming up.  Dickson is this SaturdayBristol is November 7.  I hope you'll join us.  Let's fight this bill and change Tennessee!


Did you find a card from us on your door?

Hi, we're the Tennessee Equality Project, and we were in your neighborhood conducting a survey on the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act.  We're opposed to it because it's discriminatory, futile, and potentially costly to our state.

We also have a variety of programs like Tennessee Open For Business for inclusive companies and SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee

If you would like to stay up to date on our projects, join our email list at this link.

If you would like to support our work, you can volunteer or donate

Do you still have questions? Contact us at chris@tnequalityproject.com .


How Spirit Day might have had an impact in Tennessee

On Thursday about 60 people, most of them high school students, rallied for Spirit Day at Bicentennial Mall in Nashville.  The annual GLAAD event urges people to go purple for the day and stand against bullying and stand up for LGBT youth.  Tennessee Equality Project was honored to partner with GLSEN Middle TN to put the event together and we are grateful for generous funding for our recent youth events from the Nashville Predators Foundation.

How might the event have made an impact?

1.  I hope the youth who attended felt supported.  We know that bullying is a huge problem throughout the state and we also know that family acceptance for LGBT youth is a challenge.  Some students attended with their parents and that was gratifying.  Surrounded by friends, family, and allies, they got a chance to be themselves.

2.  It provided a counter-balance to the negativity they hear in state government.  Our Legislature unfortunately offers few affirming messages for LGBT youth.  But Metro Nashville Council Member Nancy VanReece, who is the first out lesbian to be elected to a legislative body in the state, and an FBI agent spoke to the group about their support.

3. Coincidences in the media.  Three networks covered the event.  Fox17's coverage followed a story about a congregation severing its relationship with the Boy Scouts of America over new pro-gay policies.  WSMV's rally story followed a piece about a teen who had been bullied and sexually exploited.  Here is a link to Channel 5's coverage.  Had there been no Spirit Day coverage, the picture for youth in our area would have been pretty bleak.

4. Working together.  LGBT organizations in Tennessee work together all the time.  But the community may not see it often enough.  I think they got to see a strong partnership tonight and will continue to generate solutions for safer schools.

5.  Adults seeing the need?  I put a question mark on that one because I just don't know.  The media thankfully included the bullying statistics for the state in their stories.  I hope adults in power to change policy noticed.  I know we'll have to keep making our case.


What happened when a legislative committee got together to discuss gender neutral pronouns? Anything but that discussion

On Wednesday afternoon, a Senate Education subcommittee convened to discuss issues of governance at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and in higher education throughout the state.  The issue that brought legislators together--a controversy over gender neutral pronouns at UT-K--was actually barely discussed.

Everyone ended up agreeing that there never had been a policy requirement for gender neutral pronouns at UT-K, but that didn't stop legislators from discussing anything and everything else related to diversity issues in higher education.

Issues of diversity budgeting, staffing, and goal setting came up.  Sex Week came up.  Some legislators suspected that students who are pro-Western civilization are marginalized and that pro-Western civilization faculty are few. 

One legislator assured the small crowd that he has African-American friends before raising questions about freedom of speech and assembly. 

One senator really summed the whole thing up when he asked why he was there.  It really wasn't clear why the hearing was taking place, though the chairman did try to keep things focused.

And that's all right, in one sense.  I'm glad we didn't have to sit through an afternoon of attacks on transgender and gender non-conforming students.  On the other hand, considering that the pronoun issue really wasn't addressed, I have to wonder what on earth is going to land in the final report of recommendations to the full Senate Education Committee.

Time will tell.


Get ready for Spirit Day on October 15, Stand against bullying, Stand up for LGBT youth

The Basics:  October 15 is #SpiritDay when so many LGBT advocates and allies will wear purple to show their support for LGBT youth and to take a stand against bullying.  GLAAD has lots of information and resources at this link.

You can also join GLAAD's Thunderclap to spread the word at this link.

The Tennessee Numbers:  There were 6959 confirmed cases of bullying in Tennessee public schools in 2014, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.  The numbers do not include a breakdown based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

LGBT youth need to know that they are not alone and that are supported.  Tennessee Equality Project is one among many organizations in the state trying to make the lives of LGBT youth better.

What TEP is doing:  This past weekend we partnered with GLSEN Middle TN to put together a training for local high school students that equips them with resources to make their schools safer.  And on Thursday we are partnering with them again to host a Spirit Day rally in Nashville to show support.  It starts at 6:00 p.m. at Bicentennial Mall.  We urge you to attend and RSVP at this link.  Both events have been generously sponsored by the Nashville Predators Foundation.

TEP's work in this area flies under the banner of SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee, a program that operates mainly in East Tennessee but that also works in all parts of the state.  Leslie Wilson-Charles is the coordinator for East Tennessee.  If you are a parent, student, teacher, administrator, or school board member in East Tennessee and you would like to reach out to Leslie, you may contact her at lesliewilsoncharles@gmail.com . 

Your support:  If you would like to support SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee with a tax deductible contribution, please go to this link.  We are grateful for your support that makes it possible to do more in Tennessee.


Top 5 Things to Know about Coming Out in Tennessee

It's National Coming Out Day.  For some people it's an easy process to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.  For most of us, we faced at least a few obstacles.  Here are some things to know.

1.  It's really your decision.  You can come out on your own terms and in your own time.  You may decide to wait until you're financially independent or until you move to a new town.  Or you may decide you've waited long enough.  Maybe everyone else knows, as you've suspected.  You can come out to friends first or family first or just one of those groups.  You may decide to wait a long time to be out at work.  It remains your decision. 

2. Support is available in every region of Tennessee.  Having traveled the state extensively, I can assure you there are LGBT people and allies everywhere.  You'd expect support in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Clarksville, and Murfreesboro.  But it's available in Jackson, Cookeville, Crossville, Johnson City, Bristol, Elizabethton, Maryville, Morristown, Dickson, Franklin, Lebanon, Martin, Cleveland, and everywhere in between.  And we'll be glad to help you find supportive people close to you.  If the thought of coming out and coming to terms with your sexual orientation or gender identity is overwhelming to you and you are considering taking your own life, please contact the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network

3.  You can be as religious or irreligious as you are now when you come out.  If you're religious, you may find people preaching at you and trying to use faith to constrict your identity.  You may find you can no longer continue with religion.  Whatever path you take, be assured that many have taken it before you.  Many have continued and even grown in their faith and many would tell you they've grown out of it.  But coming out does not necessarily have to change your relationship to your basic beliefs.  Will you be able to continue to be a member of your current congregation?  Maybe not.  Some of the dominant faith traditions in Tennessee are frankly not welcoming.  You may have to search for a faith community that both resonates with your religious understanding and is open and affirming.  But the options are growing.  If you decide to leave religion behind, it might be meaningful for you to engage with some other group for volunteering in order to get to know more people.  LGBT and progressive groups around the state can always use more volunteers. 

4.  You will run into people who don't get it, use the wrong terms, and fumble in trying to support you.  As anyone who has lived here any length of time can tell you, many people either hold socially conservative religious views or rather traditional views about gender roles or both.  You might be treated as an anomaly or a stereotype.  You will also run into people who are friendly but call you something that's rather outdated or they might use a term that really offends you.  It's OK to give people the terminology that best fits your identity.  It's also OK to take a break from people who refuse to use your new name or the right terminology...a long break in some cases.  We often hear the phrase in activist circles that "It's not my job to educate you."  That's true to a large degree.  You don't have to answer any questions about your sex life or genitalia or really anything else.  It may fatigue you.  But if the other person is trying and you value the relationship, you may decide it's worth the time to talk it out.  You know best who's worth it.

***It's important to note that sometimes people become violent or abusive.  Your safety is of paramount importance.  You may need to seek help with a domestic violence shelter or law enforcement or through the courts.  You may simply need to distance yourself from some people who won't accept your identity.  Trust your instincts and observations and get to safety if you need to.

5.  The movement for equality needs you.  Whether you're coming out as LGBT or as an ally, we know it's not always easy.  But the fact that it's not easy for everyone is really the evidence that you are needed in Tennessee.  Volunteer at the Pride celebration closest to you.  Attend the meetings of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition.  Become part of a business network near you like the Nashville LGBT Chamber or Outlook Chattanooga.  There are PFLAG chapters around the state.  The Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, OutCentral in Nashville, and the Nooga Diversity Center could use your help.  And TEP committees throughout the state would value your efforts as well as many organizations I'm leaving out.

Coming out is always about you first.  But you will find that the broader movement for equality in Tennessee is full of resources for you and you will also find that you are a vital part of growing that movement so that coming out can be easier for the next person.


The big 3 elections are over and it's time to revisit the local government advocacy agenda

With Memphis elections winding up on Thursday, Tennessee's three largest cities (including Nashville and Knoxville) have now elected new governments--with some familiar figures and new faces.  Elections are long and painful processes in many ways, but we now know with whom we'll be working.  And regardless of the outcome, you advocate with or lobby the government you have.

Work can now begin in earnest on the local government advocacy agenda that TEP presented in April of this year.  New administrations and new legislative bodies have their priorities.  They often talk of the first 100 days in which they attempt to tackle what they view as the core problems facing their cities.  It is up to LGBT people and allies to make sure that clearly articulated policy positions begin to be part of the discussion.  TEP will be doing just that in local governments around the state.

The results may not be immediate.  As I noted, local officials have their own ideas about what comes first.  Wherever and whenever we fit on the agenda, we aim to be part of it.  Victory is not guaranteed and your support is necessary

In that spirit, I want to remind everyone of the local government advocacy agenda for Tennessee.  At this point, one revision is necessary.  We would obviously drop domestic partner registries.  We no longer need to advance those because of the Supreme Court's marriage ruling.  The marriage ruling is, of course, under attack in the Legislature, and we will defend that.  But the rest of the local government agenda is up to date.  I urge you to take time to go through it and think about how you can help.

I. Domestic Partner Registries.  If the United States Supreme Court does not rule in favor of marriage equality for Tennessee, it will be many years before the State Constitution extends equal marriage to same-sex couples.  Until that time, Tennessee cities and counties must do what they can to protect same-sex couples.  The City of Atlanta, for example, maintains a domestic partnership registry for all residents of the city and city employees.  It may also be possible to explore a registry that includes anyone who works in a particular jurisdiction.  The certificate of domestic partnership is accepted by many private employers as proof of a relationship for the company’s own domestic partner benefits programs.  For more information on Atlanta’s approach, go to http://www.atlantaga.gov/index.aspx?page=1087 .

 

II.  Safe schools.  Only Knox County, Metro Nashville, Putnam County, and Shelby County school districts include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination/anti-bullying policies.  We continue to advocate the inclusion of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors in school district policies across the state.  In addition, we will look for opportunities to help school districts incorporate LGBT competency training for administration and faculty and make them aware of the federal Equal Access Act to create a space for Gay/LGBT-Straight Alliance clubs in schools.

 

III. Gender transition/gender confirmation healthcare for city or county government employees.  Many people commonly think first of surgery when this topic comes up in conversation.  Gender related healthcare is a broader topic that relates to all the options that help transgender people live in their true gender.  Healthcare issues pertain not only to the initial stages of transition.  If a new  employee of a city or county government has already transitioned, other health care needs exist.  Employee insurance programs in local governments should include these needs.

 

IV.  Building relationships with local law enforcement and district attorneys across the state to address hate crimes and domestic violence.  The persistence of hate crimes, a national outbreak of violence against transgender women, and alarmingly high rates of domestic violence in the LGBT community call for closer relationships between advocacy organizations, local law enforcement agencies, and district attorneys.  These relationships can help achieve justice for victims and safety for survivors as well as help build support for state legislation and policy advances that adequately address these issues.  

 

V.  Funding for youth transitional housing.  LGBT young adults (18-24) have few options when they become homeless.  Many private solutions may not be fully inclusive and may even be hostile to LGBT people.  Local governments cannot require the private sector to serve inclusively of the LGBT community in Tennessee because of a 2011 state law.  But they can expand their own funding and they can do more to make sure their housing authorities are applying for all available federal programs related to youth transitional housing.  This policy goal may involve, for example, setting a target for a certain number of transitional housing units within a jurisdiction.  

 

VI.  LGBT-friendly affordable housing for seniors.  More cities like Chicago are looking at LGBT-friendly affordable housing options for seniors. See this article for information http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/10/06/chicago-minneapolis-philadelphia-senior-lgbt-housing/16115641/ .   The first generations of LGBT people who have lived most of their lives out of the closet are aging and in need of solutions.  In some cases they feel the need to go back into the closet with respect to their gender identity or sexual orientation, which is an isolating experience that leads to poor mental and physical health outcomes.  City and county governments can make sure existing HUD non-discrimination policies are fully understood and implemented by staff.  Local governments can also help their housing authorities implement LGBT senior cultural competency training for staff.  These solutions are readily available even before the discussion of dedicated units or expanded housing options begins.

 

VII.  LGBT-competent staff at health facilities.  Local governments across the state are involved in providing health services from hospitals to health departments and clinics to emergency medical services.  LGBT people, like all people, deserve excellence and respect when they seek services.  Local governing bodies and boards that oversee city and county health services should require personnel to improve their competency in serving the LGBT community in order to improve health outcomes.

 

VIII.  Dignity/Inclusion/Non-Discrimination resolutions for smaller local governments.  While it may not be possible to pass non-discrimination ordinances in smaller towns in Tennessee, local governing bodies should consider dignity/inclusion/non-discrimination resolutions like the ones passed by many towns in Mississippi.  The resolution passed by Oxford, Mississippi reads:  “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of the City of Oxford declare it the policy of the City to reject discrimination of any kind and to respect the inherent worth of every person without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, sexual orientation, family status, veteran status, disability or source of income, this the 4th day of March, 2014.”  The entire text is available at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/03/05/1282304/-Oxford-Mississippi-becomes-3rd-MS-city-to-pass-LGBT-euuality-resolution .  The goal of these resolutions is to inhibit discrimination and increase the safety of LGBT people in smaller towns.  It will also have the effect of showing more state officials that equality is a value cherished throughout Tennessee.  

 

The Work Begins:  The Tennessee Equality Project has begun the work of becoming the kind of organization equipped to pursue these advocacy objectives.  We announce these goals in hopes of gaining the support of candidates and current elected officials in local governments throughout Tennessee.  But we especially publish these goals to draw more members of the LGBT community and allies into this important work.  The work ahead will be difficult because the issues are complicated and the solutions we propose require education and consensus-building.  We ask for your help as volunteers and financial supporters so we can advance these important goals together.  You can provide financial support for our local government policy work at this link .



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