Advancing equality in Tennessee is an uphill battle

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With a decision on same-sex marriage from the Supreme Court of the United States looming and advances in equality all around — LGBT nuptials have even reached our southern border with the Alabama decision — the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) isn’t taking a break. And TEP hopes that you won’t slow your activism either.

On March 10 TEP will host its eleventh annual Advancing Equality Day on the Hill. As in years past, hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from all over the nation will descend on 600 Charlotte Avenue to urge Tennessee lawmakers to vote on the right side of history.

“We will express our opposition to discriminatory legislation and help advance positive legislation by speaking directly with our state senators and representatives,” said Chris Sanders, Executive Director of the Tennessee Equality Project. The prime focus of this year’s event is a set of three bills.

 

Counseling Discrimination Bill

The group of activists will be lobbying in opposition to SB397 by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald). This bill would allow students in the counseling, psychology and social work programs at Tennessee state colleges and universities to opt out of serving certain clients on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. This bill could potentially affect not only the LGBTQ community, but also atheist clients and members of other religions, as well members of other groups the student finds objectionable.

 

Tennessee Human Rights Bill

Advocates will be supporting SB0371/HB0296 alongside the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. Introduced by Senator Sarah Kyle (D-Shelby County) and sponsored by Representative Sherry Jones (D-Nashville), this bill adds sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the list of characteristics protected from discrimination or harassment in employment, public accommodations, housing, financing, insurance, education, in places where alcoholic beverages are consumed, real estate, public utilities, tax exemptions, the profession of healing arts, health facilities and welfare in the state.

 

Anti-Bullying Bill

Introduced by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Rutherford County) and sponsored by Representative Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville), this bill requires school districts to develop policies against harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying after consultation with parents, guardians, employees, volunteers, students, administrators and community representatives. Advocates are working with legislative leadership to fill in the details to make it a more specific bill.

Sanders said that, though the previous version of the anti-bullying bill was a great piece of legislation, it just wasn’t working on the hill. The version introduced by Republican lawmakers needs work, though. “We think it’s possible,” Sanders said, “that we can come up with a final bill that may get the support of the majority party and help make students safer in schools.”

“This is a year of building relationships and understanding that we believe can result in some positive advances for student safety,” said Sanders.

The TEP has been recruiting district captains who are setting up appointments for the day. They will gather with other advocates to meet for about 15 minutes with their legislators to talk about bills. Sanders says a tour of the capital building will also be scheduled, as well as a meeting to update participants on where things stand with marriage in Tennessee. After their meetings, groups will report what happened and everyone will adjust their strategies on the bills they are tracking.

“Legislators value hearing directly from constituents,” said Sanders. “The other side is making its voice heard, so if we hope to have a chance of beating bad bills and moving good ones, we have to be a part of the conversation.”

The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition is hosting a pre-party at Canvas to kick the event off and to welcome out-of-towners on March 9. After the event on March 10, participants are invited to join Veronika Electronika for Drag Bingo at MadDonna’s.

To RSVP for Advancing Equality Day on the Hill, visit ow.ly/JeoXe. RSVP for pre-party at Canvas at ow.ly/Jep6A, and the after party at MadDonnas at ow.ly/JepeT.

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Photos of previous Advancing Equality events courtesy Joey Lesley, Jerry Jones