What Fresh Hell?

The Tennessee General Assembly Returns for 2021

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Tennessee State Capitol

Tornadoes. A pandemic. A Christmas bombing. An attempted insurrection in Washington, D.C.

Loss of life. Lost jobs and homes. Political instability.

We have all been through a lot, so I do not assume that you are focused on the members of the Tennessee General Assembly, who returned for their 2021 legislative session on January 12. But they are back and part of their focus is on our community, despite all the struggles that we and the rest of the country are facing. So I will presume to ask those of you who are able to give some of your attention to state legislative advocacy over the next few months.

Why pay attention? The full picture of the attack legislation that is coming our way is not yet clear. But it is certain that restrictions on transgender student athletes are going to be back. The third bill filed in the Tennessee House of Representatives is similar to last year’s legislation. Based on current information, we are almost certain to see legislation that in some way hampers the ability of transgender and nonbinary youth to access gender-affirming health care. Some of those bills easily passed the Tennessee House last year. We could see them move quickly again this year.

What else is coming? Every year since 2015 there have been attacks on marriage equality and other discriminatory bills. We should know the full picture by mid-February. To prepare we have been studying the anti-LGBTQ bills filed in other states. We are usually not the only state to face these challenges, though it is important to note that Tennessee regularly gets a high number of the worst bills in the country.

Why is this happening? When these discriminatory bills are filed and we post the information, there is a fair amount of understandable venting on social media. It IS outrageous that in 2021 there are still people trying to use the law to attack entire groups of people, particularly groups with little political power. Despite the federal election and despite the recent elections in Georgia, Tennessee is still socially conservative and that is reflected in the makeup of our General Assembly.  Some people have tried to argue that Tennessee is a non-voting state or a heavily gerrymandered state. Both of these things are true. But if you look at our U.S. Senate races, which are not gerrymandered and do get a strong voter turnout, Tennessee is by any measure a conservative state. It is likely to be a tough legislative environment for the next few years.

So what can we do? Members of the LGBTQ community must continue to speak out during the legislative session and draw in more allies. It has been gratifying to see clergy and business allies step up significantly over the last few years.  But regardless of what our allies do, we have to lead. Those who have the time and commitment can serve as district captains during our virtual days on the Hill, which will be announced once we know more about the legislative calendar for 2021.

We also need you to participate in the email and phone campaigns on these bills when we launch those. I noticed that participation dropped off significantly after President Trump was elected. Perhaps the reason is that suddenly everyone and everything was under attack. We routinely used to get hundreds of people to participate in those campaigns. The last few years it has been like pulling teeth to get even 200 people to respond.  We need to try to get back up to robust levels of participation when these bills are moving in the Legislature. I hope we can count on you to help with that.

Another approach is to form new alliances.  Over the last year, TEP has joined STAND UP Nashville, A Better Balance, labor organizations, and many others in We Decide Tennessee. This organization seeks to fight what is commonly called “preemption” legislation, but we call it state interference legislation. State government routinely stops city and county governments in Tennessee from addressing problems like job discrimination, a living wage, paid sick leave, and COVID-19, while doing little or nothing to address the problems that the people of Tennessee face.  These alliances can make us stronger to work for the change we need in our state.

What about voting? Sometimes when these attack bills are filed, people exclaim, “Vote them out!” We do need to register to vote, turn out, and elect good candidates. But legislative elections are two years away, and we need to fight bad legislation between the elections. We will not get the chance to vote them out during the legislative session. We cannot wait two years to make our voices heard. We have a chance to speak out now.  I hope we will.  We aim to give you many opportunities to do just that.

This article was originally written in January for the February issue. Visit the TEP website for updates on anti-LGBTQ+ bills that are beginning to progress.

Christopher Sanders is the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project. For more information as it becomes available, or to find opportunities to get involved, visit tnep.org.

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