A self-fulfilling stereotype? Tackling Tennessee’s PR problem

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It genuinely does seem that not a day goes by when there isn’t another “bad news story” about minority communities. You only really need to look at local television stations or their websites to hear/see of either some new perceived problem that then creates more unnecessary tensions.

Tennessee, for minority communities, has something of an image problem. The ‘Bible Belt’ is, unfortunately, notorious for a widely-reported brand of hatred and intolerance which, sadly, proves prohibitive for many LGBT folk, people of color, and members of other non-WASP communities, ensuring that Tennessee is considered something of a no-go area for such people.  Incidences of intolerance and abusive behavior towards members of minorities still routinely hit the headlines, and Tennessee’s legal attitudes towards LGBT couples leaves much to be desired. For those of us who are proud to be from Tennessee, and also happen to be LGBT, this is distressing. Nashville is seen by some as an ‘oasis’ of tolerance within a largely intolerant state – a triumph on the part of Nashville. However, is Tennessee’s generally odious reputation deserved, or is a lot of it an unfair stereotype which should be put to sleep? Will Tennessee natives ever be able to hold up their heads with pride amongst minority communities, and feel assured that no awkward comments about Bible-belt intolerance will come their way when they reveal their state of origin?

Legalized Inequality

Firstly, the uncomfortable facts. Tennessee is not, it must be admitted, the best state in which to be LGBT. Tennessee law (unlike that of most European nations and many American states) does not protect people against employment discrimination on the basis of their sexual or gender identity, nor does the Tennessee law recognize hate-crimes against people of non-cis gender.  Tennessee does not, in any way, shape, or form, recognize same-sex marriages or unions. Indeed, it has explicitly banned same-sex unions from occurring within its borders. Several controversial bills have been brought by Tennessee senators which would further reduce the status of members of the LGBT community, and enable discrimination against them. In 1977,Tennessee passed an ordnance prohibiting authorities from altering the gender of trans individuals on their birth certificates in order to ‘protect the integrity’ of the documents. There are no signs of this being repealed. Perhaps more worryingly, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes continue to make news within Tennessee. So far, so depressing.

Green Shoots Of Change

On the basis of the above, it would seem that Tennessee’s dubious reputation is deserved. However, digging a little deeper, one discovers a positive groundswell of change, and a strong grassroots pro-LGBT movement within Tennessee. Far from being the intolerant rednecks the media loves to portray them as, ordinary Tennessee folk (with the notable exceptions common, unfortunately, to every state) often appear to be staunchly pro civil-rights for the LGBT community. Tennessee did indeed ban same-sex marriages – but only after a concerted campaign and mass-mobilization by homophobic organizations. The ban was strongly opposed within Tennessee, and, indeed, certain ruling Tennessee bodies have worked to reduce its effects. The county of Davidson, and the cities of Collegedale, Knoxville, and our very own Nashville have all brought in legal benefits for same-sex couples in domestic partnerships. Efforts to introduce a ‘Turn Away The Gays’ bill which would allow individuals and businesses with ‘strong religious beliefs’ to refuse service to same-sex couples received intense opposition, including from prominent and very vocal restaurant owner Kelly English, which helped to ensure that the bill died at the judiciary stage. Of course, that such bills should be proposed at all is distressing, but it is comforting to know that the people of Tennessee can and will mobilize an effective opposition to them.

Promoting Tolerance and Awareness

Tennessee in general and Nashville in particular have also been instrumental in improving the lot of the LGBT community on a far greater scale – and, by so doing, improving life for everyone. During the initial stages of the HIV/AIDS outbreak, many homosexuals who contracted the disease were scared to seek help. The clinics of Nashville, however, did not judge or condemn any LGBT person who came to them. Indeed, they actively encouraged people to come forward unashamedly and seek impartial medical aid. They worked tirelessly to promote knowledge of the disease, its causes, and how to prevent it, and to reduce the stigma and intolerance surrounding it. This proactive and non-judgmental response also gave a boost to knowledge of sexually transmitted infections generally, and did a lot to remove social and cultural issues surrounding speaking up and getting treatment for them – particularly within the LGBT community. When antiretroviral drugs were introduced to hold HIV at bay, many Nashville bars stepped up to the plate and threw drag nights to raise money for those needing treatment. Today, Nashville and Tennessee continues to battle not only HIV/AIDS, but the social and cultural issues surrounding the disease in an incredibly progressive manner for such a supposedly intolerant state.

Changing The Script

Unfortunately, Tennessee’s reputation for intolerance sometimes, by its very existence, promotes intolerance itself. Partly this is because intolerant people hear the rumors and head into Tennessee, feeling that it is a shining beacon for the kind of non-diverse, bigoted world in which they wish to live. Whatever the true facts of the case, an influx of such people may cause the stereotype to become a vicious reality. Furthermore, there is the danger that intolerance will begin to be seen as part of what it is to be from Tennessee, thus ensuring that people who wish to be considered true citizens of Tennessee will take on the mantle of intolerance to prove their credentials. Often this is done in a ‘jokey’ manner, but such jokes can create an atmosphere in which it seems acceptable to voice homophobic slurs, and implies that to take offence is to be a humorless killjoy. Nashville is known to be a sparkling oasis of acceptance and tolerance – and rightly so. Its famed gay bars and fantastic Pride festival along with an inclusive and welcoming out-and-proud LGBT community all contribute to render Nashville one of the most tolerant cities in the United States. If this Nashville spirit is to spread to the rest of Tennessee, the state’s positives when it comes to LGBT interaction should be highlighted, not its notable failures. If Tennessee is promoted as a tolerant and diverse state, it just might become one…