Book 18 of The Iliad contains the powerful story of Achilles learning of the death of his companion Patroclus, who was wearing Achilles’ armor into battle against the Trojans. Achilles lets out such a powerful, mournful cry that his mother, the goddess Thetis, hears him while she is in the depths of the sea. Achilles is beside himself about the loss of Patroclus and the prospect of going into battle again without his armor. But he knows he must. So Thetis rushes to the smith god Hephaestus, who makes Achilles a marvelous set of new armor to prepare him for the next of his storied battles.
Tennessee’s LGBT community is in a similar position as we face the upcoming state legislative session. A key piece of our armor has disappeared. Under the Obama administration, there was the possibility that the federal Department of Education and the Department of Justice would construe some discriminatory state bills as violations of federal civil rights laws and threaten to withhold federal funding.
It is hard to imagine that federal departments and agencies under the new administration will view the matter the same way. Instead we are likely to hear more about returning more issues to the states to handle. With a socially conservative state government in Tennessee, that’s not good news.
Like Achilles, we have let out our mournful cries, and we have lost some of our armor. But we have no Thetis to comfort us, and no Hephaestus to forge new armor as the legislative session approaches.
What attacks are coming? The ink is barely dry on Senate Bill 1, an expanded counseling discrimination bill. The very first bill filed in the Senate not only preserves the ability of counselors to turn clients away, but it would attempt to allow them do so on the basis of “belief.” And it would forbid the state board that licenses counselors from making reference to national codes of ethics in their regulations. In other words, we basically have to start all over with standards for counseling ethics in Tennessee. What will be added, taken away, and retained will have an impact on the LGBT community and beyond. Other counseling discrimination bills may also be filed that would allow counselors employed by public entities like schools to turn clients away.
In 2016 the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion was defunded for a year by state legislation. We may see efforts to defund it again. Vandalism has
recently hit UT’s Pride Center, showing the need for enhanced diversity efforts. Also returning may be the anti-transgender student bathroom bill. With a low probability of federal intervention, the state is free to step up its attacks against transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA)/religious carve-out bills are also in the cards. The state may look at ways to allow businesses not to serve our community and to “protect” clergy and local officials from having to officiate same-sex weddings. Clergy are already protected, of course, but that may not be enough to stop a bill based on hate and fear.
What is the armor that we need in this new but familiar time? To start with, in the absence of Greek gods, clergy allies will be welcome friends. We spent part of the fall reaching out to supportive clergy in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga to prepare them to advocate for equality. Many clergy around the state have already publicly opposed Senate Bill 1. Their voices will help show that the religious Right does not have a monopoly on the moral voice in our state’s public policy.
A stronger, sustained presence at Legislative Plaza will also be necessary to hold our own against attack bills. In 2016 we held one planned Advancing Equality Day on the Hill and spontaneously added another based on the need. We have three days on the Hill planned for 2017—February 7, March 7, and April 4. More days on the Hill give citizens more flexibility to work with their schedules. Three days spread out will also allow us to hit the flow of legislation better. They will put citizen contact closest to the times when discriminatory bills are moving.
Our voices in the media can provide an effective shield, too. Shaping the message in the media shapes the public’s perception of legislation. We know that Nashville media will cover these bills and that is a good start. But it is also important that media outlets in Murfreesboro, Franklin, Clarksville, Lebanon, Cookeville and other cities cover these bills. Nashville pressure is never enough to stop a bad piece of legislation. Legislators in all parts of the state need to know citizens are watching the process. So letters to the editors of papers around the state matter.
You may not be able to come to Legislative Plaza or you may not feel comfortable writing a letter to your local paper. But almost everyone can call or email legislators. Calls are best, and we will give you many opportunities to contact legislators during the session. Phone calls can stop bad bills. They played a key role in 2014 in stopping the Turn the Gays Away bill in the Senate. Volume of calls is critical.
We all long for real progress and there are arenas where we may achieve that. Our local governments are such arenas. But at the state and federal levels, we will be playing defense for the time being. I hope you will all join in the defense of our community and bring as many allies as you can to the effort.
Chris Sanders is the Executive Director of the Tennessee Equality Project