2 Anti-Gay Measures Advance in Tenn.

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 20, 2011

Tennessee lawmakers have advanced two anti-gay measures. One would strengthen the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" rule barring mention of GLBTs in schools; the other would strip local governments of the ability to implement anti-discrimination measures that would protect GLBTs.

The "Don't Say Gay" bill, championed by anti-gay lawmaker Stacey Campfield, would bar any reference to sexual minorities in public schools until students reach the ninth grade. Opponents to the bill worry that students, who hear anti-gay epithets and erroneous information concerning gays long before they reach the ninth grade, will be impacted by such a ban on speech in the classroom, especially GLBT youth.

But Campfield justifies the bill, saying that students should not hear about gays at school in elementary school because "homosexuals don't naturally reproduce," the Associated Press reported on May 20.

The bill's text states that classroom discussions touching upon sexuality will be "limited exclusively to age-appropriate natural human reproduction science." The bill does not seem to make any provision for discussions of same-sex families, and advocates for gay youth worry about the effect on the emotional health of young GLBTs in an environment where homophobic messages are prevented by law from being countered.

The measure passed the Tennessee state senate on May 20 with a vote of 19-11. The chamber's approval of the controversial measure is a long-sought victory for Campfield, proposed the measure for six years running during his tenure as a state representative. However, the bill is not currently slated to be taken up by the state house of representatives, and may well languish.

The bill allows teachers to discuss heterosexuality in the classroom with younger students.

"Such a bill could derail any potential lessons on anti-gay bullying," noted GLBT blog JoeMyGod in an April 21 posting on the bill.

"As introduced, the bill requires that 'no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality,' " noted a posting at change.org.

"This bill would tie the hands of school counselors, school psychologists, teachers, principals and other school employees in protecting our children," the posting continued. "If a child is experiencing issues relating to their sexual orientation or identity, they would be unable to discuss those issues with the adults who are supervising and teaching them. Early detection of the signs of depression can help prevent suicides among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth."

"Bullying is escalating both on and off school grounds, locally and nationally," the text added. "Many of these incidents involve real and perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Don't Say Gay would jeopardize the safety and well-being of students."

The site gathered 6,441 signatures on a petition to stop the bill before the petition expired.

"Consider what effects this bill could have if it becomes law: teachers could be prohibited from even mentioning the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people exist," the text went on. "It is quite possible that school libraries would fail to comply with the law if their shelves contained books with lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters."

The leader of the Tennessee Equality Project expressed similar concerns, reported the Huffington Post on April 22.

"It means [teachers] can't talk about gay issues or sexuality even with students who may be gay or have [a] gay family," said spokesperson Ben Byers.

Openly gay "Star Trek" actor George Takei tackled the situation with a satirical jab in which the actor, who portrayed Mr. Sulu, the navigator of the Starship Enterprise suggested that educators sidestep the law by substituting his own last name in place of the word "gay" while in the classroom.

"The so-called 'Don't Say Gay' law is premised on the misguided belief that by not talking about gay people, they can simply make us disappear," Takei said in the video, which was posted at YouTube on May 19 by allegiancebway.

Takei stars in the Broadway production of "Allegiance," about a Japanese American family interned in a camp during World War II. Takei himself lived in one such camp for several years during his childhood. The play co-stars Telly Leung of "Glee," who plays a younger version of Takei's character.

"I'm here to tall Tennessee and LGBT youth and all teachers that would be affected by this law that I am here for you," Takei announced in the allegiancebway video. "In fact, I'm lending my name to the cause. Any time you need to say the word 'gay,' you can simply say the word 'Takei,' " the actor suggested, with a broad grin.

"For example, you could safely proclaim you are a supporter of 'Takei marriage,' " the celebrity, who is legally married to his husband Brad Altman, continued, as a photo of his own wedding day appeared in the video. "If you're in a more festive mood, you can march in a 'Takei Pride Parade.' "

The Enterprise icon added, "Even homophobic slurs don't seem as hurtful if someone says, 'That is so Takei!' "

The actor and equality activist unveiled a new T-shirt for the occasion, emblazoned with a rainbow-colored Starfleet emblem and the slogan, "It's Okay to be Takei." Other merchandise with the emblem and slogan was also touted in the video, with all proceeds slated for donation.

The Huffington Post noted that Campfield, 42, is a bachelor. The article also recalled that Campfield has, in the past, proposed that abortions include death certificates for the fetuses and that colleges allow guns on campus.

Taking Aim at Anti-Discrimination Ordinances

A second anti-gay bill was advanced by the Tennessee legislature, this one seeking to strip local governments of the power to enact GLBT-inclusive anti-discrimination laws. The move was decried by the Human Rights Campaign in a May 19 news release.

Noting that the bill "prohibits cities and counties from banning discriminatory practices by any means," the release called for Gov. Bill Haslam to veto the legislation.

"Limiting the rights and protections cities and counties can provide their own citizens is fundamentally unjust," Joe Solmonese, head of the HRC, said.

"We are extremely disappointed that the Tennessee Legislature is once again writing discrimination into our state laws," HRC board member Billy Leslie, who is from Nashville. "By removing local governments' ability to decide what is best for their communities, state lawmakers have acted arrogantly and gone against the principles of self governance upon which our country was founded. We strongly urge the governor to veto this legislation."

"While the bill prohibits localities from adopting anti-discrimination laws on any basis, including race, religion, sex and age, it was motivated by an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Nashville," the HRC release noted. "Because legislators took action based on their desire to limit the rights of a particular group--the LGBT community--the bill, if signed into law, will be vulnerable to legal challenges costing the state precious resources during tight economic times."

The bill stipulates that city and county governments cannot offer anti-discrimination protections that are more comprehensive than those enshrined are in state law. Tennessee state law does not protect Tennessee residents based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

State Rep. Glen Casada claimed that the bill--given the name the Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act--was intended to create a consistent set of rules for employers across the state. The bill's approval by the House comes in the wake of Nashville implementing protections that specify that businesses winning city contracts may not discriminate against GLBT workers.

Not everyone in the State House subscribed to Casada's explanation.

"We want to say that it's OK to discriminate on sexual identification and gender," State Rep. Jeanne Richardson, a Memphis Democrat, said. "Everybody sitting in this room knows what this bill is about."

Another lawmaker challenged the law as being too much of an intrusion by the state on local governments.

"You're telling them that, basically, they have to discriminate against people," State Rep. Sherry Jones, also a Nashville Democrat, told the chamber. "You're trying to go back and retroactively change the law that my city has determined is good for them."

The bill is similar to one that was proposed in Montana by State Rep. Kristine Hanson, a Republican. The bill would have eliminated the right of local governments to extend anti-discrimination protections to GLBTs.

An argument similar to the one offered in Tennessee was given voice in support of the bill by Montana State Rep. Michael Morre, who said, "You introduce things in one city, you can do things differently in another city, you can things in another town differently from that. If that is what you want, if you want to go down the road that can ultimately lead to one place then sure, let's not pass this ordinance.

"But we need, this is what we do in here, we try to put things into the context of the whole," added Morre.

Neither Tennessee nor Montana proposed laws that would force local governments into strict conformity with any other state laws.

"Currently, more than 135 cities and counties have passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with more than one-sixth of those cities and counties located in southern states," the HRC release noted.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.