New state legislature will be difficult climate for GLBT community

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While the GLBT community in Tennessee has never had an easy time of it at the state capitol, the recently concluded elections have made Chris Sanders, chair of Tennessee Equality Project's Nashville Committee, says that relationship-building across the political spectrum is key when the new state legislature convenes this month. PHOTO PROVIDEDthings a lot worse.

Groups such as the Tennessee Equality Project and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition have long advocated for hate-crimes bills and many other pro-GLBT pieces of legislation. In the wake of elections that left both the state house and senate in strong Republican control, with many new conservative members in place and key allies voted out, not to mention a new Republican governor, those lobbying efforts may now be largely confined to attempting to thwart discriminatory legislation from being passed.

“Our prospects of getting our bills through are pretty remote,” said Marisa Richmond, president of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. “We’re looking at what issues might be pushed forward. David Fowler [of the Family Action Council of Tennessee] has issued a statement that the religious right is coming after us, and they’ve got the votes. They have fought against us on the hate-crimes bill, and now there are people up there who don’t want to even talk about GLBT issues, much less be seen as voting for us on anything.”

"Blocking negative legislation gets tricky in the new General Assembly,” added Chris Sanders, chair of TEP’s Nashville Committee. “Often House subcommittees were able to stop bad bills.  We’ll have to see the new make up of committees before we know where we stand."

Sanders also noted that not all Republicans are in lockstep on anti-GLBT legislation.

“The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill failed to get the votes of three Republicans in the House K-12 education subcommittee this year, so we have to continue to work on building relationships across the political spectrum,” he said.

While the fight will go on at the state level, this is a time to get even more involved at the local level, in hopes of legislating upward from city and county elected bodies, Sanders said.

“It would be nothing short of miraculous if any positive legislation moved at the state or federal levels over the next two years,” he said. “We do have an opportunity to advance good legislation at the local level in our cities and counties, though. Our community should invest some time and resources there.”

There were a few successes at the state level as well, so they can be instructive when it comes to how, and when, to work for and with legislators.

"I was personally most pleased about Rep. Sherry Jones’ victory over Councilman Duane Dominy. That was the most clear-cut choice of all the races in Davidson County and she delivered a knock out punch,” Sanders said. “We’ve lost a lot of friends in the Legislature. First, we are very sad about the recent death of Rep. Ulysses Jones, who was a strong opponent of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. Rep. Kent Coleman, who was a cosponsor of the hate crimes bill, lost his race as did several other supportive lawmakers.”

The loss of these legislators, coupled with the rise of new, conservative ones, means that GLBT groups and individuals alike will have to be on the alert for attacks on many fronts, Richmond said.

“We don’t know which ones they are going to prioritize — will it be ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ or the adoption ban, or a ban on civil unions? [Lt. Gov.] Ron Ramsey was urging the attorney general to file a brief in the Proposition 8 lawsuit in California. There are so many things for them to choose from, so it’s hard to guess what they’ll do first. But we do know they are definitely coming after us; they’ve made that quite clear.”

And for its part, TEP will be ready to mobilize, and to help other groups get more heavily involved in the process as well.

“Twenty TEP PAC volunteers from Nashville alone gave hundreds of hours volunteering for candidates,” Sanders said. “We won some of those races and lost others, but I think we’ve established a model that we can expand for next year’s Metro races. We have a majority of pro-equality elected officials in Metro and we aim to protect that majority with volunteer help and fundraising.”