When they say it's not about you, but it is: Making Tennessee's LGBT community invisible at the Legislature

We might not be able to have politics if we didn't all play word games to some degree.  There are, of course, endless discussions of "framing" and "messaging."  Language reveals and obscures.  We all know this from the time we learn to use words to accomplish our tasks in life.

But I can honestly say that every time I go to Legislative Plaza I am reminded just how invisible LGBT people are to Tennessee lawmakers and I'm fairly certain it's by design.

Oh, they know we exist.  But we exist as an idea, some invisible threat, not as full-blooded neighbors and fellow citizens.

And that was clear this week with the proposals that came up for a vote.

Example of the Counseling Discrimination bill:  In the Senate, SB1556, the Counseling Discrimination bill was voted out of the Health and Welfare Committee.  There was a great deal of dancing around just what issues were the focus of the bill.  But we finally got some hints.  You can watch the video for yourself.  Testimony starts at about 27:45.  Sen. Johnson has, in fact, improved the original bill by adding a provision that makes referrals mandatory.  So he deserves some credit for listening and adapting.  That is in itself a real victory.  But we have to wait well into the discussion of the bill for the example of counseling for same-sex couples to come up, which one is fairly certain motivated the bill to begin with.  And we get another hint about what kind of image of our community really animates the thinking about LGBT people in Legislative Plaza.  Sen. Johnson alludes to counselors being "targeted by those advancing an agenda."

So rather than the Legislature learning about the lack of acceptance of LGBT people in Tennessee, legislators think of us as some force that is organized for the purpose of going around testing counselors to see if we can sue them.  I bet most of you reading this had no idea that the LGBT community was that organized and that driven by litigation.  Yet that is precisely the image of our community that went completely unrefuted in the hearing on the bill. 

Example of the Marriage Equality Resolution:  Let's take another example.  When Rep. Lynn ran her anti-marriage equality resolution, she amended it in committee to focus it on Family Action's lawsuits against the Williamson County and Bradley County clerks.  Yet, she talked about separation of powers and other seemingly sex-less and gender-less concepts.  So I provided testimony discussing Tennessee's LGBT community, and if we had not done so, I honestly believe there would have been NO direct reference to our community in the discussion of the resolution among its supporters.  You can view video on the resolution debate here.  Go to minute 21:37.

Rep. Mike Carter said during his comments that marriage was not the issue motivating his interest in Rep. Lynn's resolution.  Fair enough.  As a former judge, his interest in the question of separation of powers can be understood.

Regardless, Rep. Lynn sent an email blast to her list on Feb. 8 using the phrase "my resolution in support of David Fowler's lawsuit that may overturn same sex marriage in Tennessee."  We have known all along what that this is what she meant with her resolution.

So what's the deal?  Why are we playing these games in Legislative Plaza when socially conservative legislators are clearly telling people whom they think agree with them that these bills ARE about us?

Are they concerned about the media spotlight?  Are they concerned about the volume of calls and emails they would receive if they "came out" with their discriminatory sentiments so openly?

Whatever it is, I think there's a clue for us at work in this dichotomy.  So it's going to be important for us to press harder for people to reveal themselves.  Otherwise, people supporting discrimination will get away with it.  Unless legislators are direct in their hatred and contempt of our community, the public won't see it...and in some cases the media may miss it.  Legislators use code.  They understand the code, act on it, pass bad bills, and most people never notice.

We all have to call it out, expose it for what it is.  Then we can have an honest discussion.  We still might lose on some bills, but the open discussion gives our allies more opportunity to come forward.  And that is precisely what we need in Tennessee.

Let's work for an honest discussion.  Let's press for the truth and let the people decide what legislators really mean.

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  • commented 2016-02-12 11:25:11 -0600
    This is an incredibly important point, and one I think very pertinent in the wake of last year’s HERO defeat in Texas. When we allow opponents to shift the conversation away from the discriminatory intent, and frame it in abstracted reasoning, we lose our voice, and we lose the momentum of public opinion that we finally, for the first time, have going for us.

    We need to humanize the issues, help frame them in the context of personal experiences and impacts, and ensure that lawmakers see us as neighbors, constituents, friends, and family.

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