TEP: Challenges present opportunities for advocacy

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The 109th General Assembly of the State of Tennessee just entered its second year and we all need to know what is in store for Tennessee’s LGBT community.

In some ways, it is as if the Legislature had never adjourned. As soon as the Supreme Court issued the Obergefell ruling for nationwide marriage equality, legislators began announcing plans to hold onto various forms of marriage discrimination. Those and other discriminatory proposals were announced throughout the fall leading up to General Assembly’s January 12 return.

Marriage: As of the first day of the session, the only discriminatory bill that we know we will face is SB1437/HB1412, which is called the “Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act.” This bill would attempt to return Tennessee to the days of marriage discrimination and require the Tennessee Attorney General to defend government officials who refuse to recognize equal marriage. Can it pass? Yes. Can it last? No, no serious legal scholar thinks it would hold up in court. Tennessee is already facing legal bills of $2.3 million from Obergefell. Continuing to resist marriage equality would be expensive for Tennessee.

Other marriage bills that have been discussed include a so-called pastor protection act, which would shield clergy from having to perform marriages with which they disagree. The First Amendment already accomplishes this goal. Other ideas under consideration include getting rid of marriage licenses altogether and bills to allow businesses and government officials to refuse to serve the LGBT community with marriage-related services.

Transgender discrimination: In November, State Rep. Bud Hulsey announced that he was considering a bill that would prevent transgender students from using restrooms and changing rooms that correspond to their gender identity. As of the first day of the session, the bill had not been filed. Rep. Hulsey has been seriously reviewing all the feedback he has been receiving about devastating effects the bill would have on transgender students.

Higher education diversity: In September a national controversy arose about efforts to provide education about gender-neutral pronouns at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Legislators issued threats and held hearings. Special committees to investigate diversity programming at Tennessee’s public universities are being convened. The impact could be profound because our state’s schools are increasingly taking steps to protect LGBT students, faculty, and staff. We certainly do not want to see any interruption of these efforts.

Good bills out of reach: Because of the socially conservative composition of the Legislature, there are great proposals that likely will not get much of a hearing. Tennessee needs to allow the gender markers on birth certificates to be amended to protect transgender people. The Tennessee Human Rights Act should be amended to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to protect LGBT people in employment, housing, public accommodation, etc. Our state’s hate crimes law should be updated to include gender identity and expression. State anti-bullying laws should be updated with more enumerated categories. There is great value in these bills for public education if they can get a hearing. That is a tall order given the political realities we face.

Taking action: Equality advocates around the state have been fighting back for months. Northeast Tennesseans protested the anti-transgender student bathroom bill this fall. More than 1200 people have contacted the State Senate against this proposed legislation. Volunteers canvassed conservative districts in Middle and East Tennessee to hone a message against the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act. And hundreds of people have protested in red at their county commission meetings against anti-marriage equality resolutions designed to prompt the Legislature to pass discriminatory bills.

Sustaining the momentum is critical. The groups pushing discriminatory bills have been organizing for months and so have we. But even if you have not been involved, it is not too late. Bring your time and energy now. Go to the Legislature’s website at http://www.capitol.tn.gov/ and find your state senator and state representative. Contact them and express your opposition to these bills. Commit to attend TEP’s 12th annual Advancing Equality Day on the Hill on March 8. RSVP on the Facebook event page. You will benefit from spending time with other equality advocates from around the state and working to defend your own rights.

We have the better argument. Equality is a winning message. Over time, it overcomes the alternatives again and again. But if we want to speed up the process in Tennessee, we need numbers. Over 200 people in red beat an anti-marriage equality resolution in Blount County in October. You, your friends, and your family can give us the numbers to defend our community in this tough legislative session. As always, allies are welcome!