TEP to Focus on ‘Pre-emption Laws’ and Non-Discrimination

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My name is Brandon Thomas and I’m the new State Preemption & LGBTQ Non-discrimination Project Coordinator for the Tennessee Equality Project Foundation. I grew up in Smyrna and graduated from MTSU with a Political Science degree. In 2016, I ran for State House in the 49th District, and was recently elected to serve as the committeeman for Senate District 13 on the Tennessee Democratic Party’s Executive Committee. I currently live in Smyrna with my husband, Michael, our son, Ezra, and our pug, Coco.

I’ve been volunteering with Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) for years, serving as a district captain for Advancing Equality Day on the Hill, and working with the TEP Rutherford County Committee. TEP has been around since 2004, when it was formed to fight the ballot measure aiming to put an anti-marriage-equality amendment into our state constitution. As I came out and came up as a baby activist, TEP was always there, fighting for our community. At MTSU, I became more aware of TEP’s work, and I am so grateful for all the bad bills that TEP and its supporters have defeated over the past 14 years.

That’s why I’m so glad to be working with TEP. Although the position is only temporary, as it is grant-funded, I’m honored to have the opportunity to work assisting TEP’s executive director Chris Sanders in educating people from across the state on issues that affect LGBTQ+ Tennesseans.

Specifically, I will be working to educate citizens on how the state interferes with local governments and how that interference prevents local governments from implementing laws they have already passed that help their constituents—laws like increasing the minimum wage or creating an inclusive non-discrimination policy. Every time the state of Tennessee preempts the actions of local governments, it undermines the local democracy and discourages city/town officials from solving problems that are unique to their own communities.

As we all know, the fight for LGBTQ+ equality has many fronts: housing discrimination, acceptance in social circles or organizations, medical discrimination, and poor treatment in school, just to name a few.

However, employment discrimination may be one of the more alienating forms of discrimination for LGBTQ+ people. Being denied a well-paying job or promotion because of one’s perceived sexual orientation or gender identity prevents LGBT people from ascending into economic prosperity, and it prevents them from having the security and stability that could help them to flourish. It also deprives many of access to quality benefits. It’s degrading and isolating.

There are 31 states, including the state of Tennessee, that allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The state of Tennessee also actively prevented Nashville from instituting their own policy encouraging Metro contractors to implement inclusive non-discrimination policies.

This is just one of many examples of the state preempting local attempts at protecting the LGBTQ+ community. A city government passed a law protecting our community, and the state government stepped in and told them they couldn’t do it. We should never accept the state mandating less-inclusive policies. There’s no logical reason to keep a city from doing what it feels is necessary to protect its citizens—especially when the party setting up the roadblocks is one that champions “local control.” It’s clear that “local control” only matters when they agree with the local government.

The State of Tennessee is no stranger to intervening in local government affairs. When Nashville and Memphis wanted to decriminalize marijuana possession by allowing a lesser civil penalty for individuals caught with small amounts, the state prevented that.

When cities and towns were debating on whether to remove civil war monuments, the state of Tennessee made it illegal for any locality to remove them. The city of Memphis legally sidestepped the state by selling the parks that housed a statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The state of Tennessee retaliated, in an effort to make an example out of Memphis, by removing a $250,000 earmark for Memphis’ bicentennial. This petty act by some state legislators flies in the face of the “local control” they claim to believe in.

Tennessee has also prevented local governments from mandating health insurance benefits, leave policies, hourly wages, and laws stopping wage theft. These are all policies that could have helped Tennessee workers, but the state chose to step in and make sure our neighbors remain less protected.

While we cannot advocate around all these issues, we do want to make sure that LGBTQ+ people are able to get hired, work, and get the promotions they deserve, discrimination-free.

If you have been on the receiving end of employment discrimination, TEP would like to hear your story. We are collecting stories to document how pervasive and problematic state intervention can be when it prevents a locality from demanding an inclusive work environment within its borders. Please visit bit.ly/TEPsurvey2018 to take the survey.

PHOTO: Matt Ferry