Tenn. Anti-Gay Bill Signed Into Law

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday May 24, 2011

The governor of Tennessee put an end to speculation as to how he would handle a bill that proposed stripping the right of local governments to provide GLBT anti-discrimination protections when, on the night of May 23, he signed the bill into law.

Gov. Bill Haslam was required to make his decision by June 1. His office had offered little indication as to what the governor intended to do with the bill before he signed it, sparking immediate denunciations from GLBT equality organizations.

The state's Chamber of Commerce had indicated support for the bill early on, and national companies involved with the Chamber came under pressure from equality groups in the wake of a statement from the business organization.

"Our position is now, and has historically been, that employment standards from the government should be consistent across the state and not create an additional burden on companies that are endeavoring to be competitive and provide jobs to all Tennesseans based on their individual qualifications and merit," the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce stated.

"On the Chamber's board are representatives from a handful of major national corporations, including Nissan, FedEx, AT&T, Comcast, DuPont, Pfizer, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), Caterpillar, KPMG, Whirlpool, Embraer, Alcoa and United HealthCare," a May 23 Huffington Post article noted. "Many of those companies have strong diversity policies, including protections and benefits for gays and lesbians."

The Chamber of Commerce reversed its support for the bill in the face of pressure from GLBT equality groups. The Human Rights Campaign suggested that it was this loss of support from the commercial sector that prompted the governor's signing of the bill, which took place with little fanfare.

"Since there are no state protections for sexual orientation or gender identity, the Governor's signature of this bill becomes a green light for anti-LGBT discrimination across the state," a May 23 release from the HRC said.

The HRC said that the signing was "an apparent attempt to score cheap political points," and accused Haslam of "ignor[ing] the business community" by signing the bill into law.

"Discrimination should have no place in the Volunteer State and the Chamber's opposition to this law sent a strong signal that corporations are on the leading edge of positive change," HRC head Joe Solmonese said. "In contrast, Governor Haslam has put discrimination ahead of the state's values and even business interests by signing this horrible legislation."

"Earlier [on May 23], the governor's spokesman stated no decision had been made regarding the veto. It wasn't until support for the bill apparently began to dwindle that he hastily signed the bill into law," the HRC release said.

"Major corporations spoke out against the bill and in favor of workplaces that respect and welcome all individuals," added the release. "Since the bill passed late last week, Aloca, FedEx, AT&T, KPMG, UnitedHealth Group, Whirlpool, Comcast and other companies publicly disavowed the bill."

But that disavowal came in the wake of an outcry that the Chamber of Commerce had initially supported the legislation. The New Jersey-based Garden State Equality announced in a May 23 release that it had reversed a decision to honor three corporations that serve on the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce board--AT&T, KPMG, and Pfizer. The release also noted that an early opponent of the bill was Alcoa, which was ahead of the pack in lobbying for Haslam to veto the legislation.

"Garden State Equality finds the Tennessee bill to be an unconscionable act of hatred," the release stated. "First, it would nullify county and municipal laws in Tennessee that protect the LGBT community from discrimination, including a Nashville law enacted last month. Secondly, it would bar all counties and municipalities in Tennessee from enacting future laws protecting the LGBT community from discrimination. And thirdly, the bill is a direct assault on transgender people in Tennessee.

"The bill redefines 'sex' in the Tennessee code to include only the gender designated on a birth certificate," clarified the release. "But Tennessee does not allow a change of gender designation on birth certificates for transgender people."

The New Jersey equality group's move was hailed by a similar organization based in Tennessee, the Tennessee Equality Project.

"We thank Garden State Equality for standing by us in Tennessee and showing true national leadership," Nashville Committee Chair Chris Sanders, according to the Garden State Equality release. "We hope organizations across America will follow Garden State Equality's lead with regard to companies on the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry."

"Equality Is an Everyday Value"

Garden State Equality head Steve Goldstein said that the decision not to award the honors was tied to the otherwise-GLBT inclusive policies of the three national corporations.

"AT&T, KPMG and Pfizer don't have to remind us that their internal workplace policies are outstanding or that they have received several awards for corporate equality and diversity. That's why we had voted to honor them," Goldstein said.

"And their LGBT employee groups are fantastic. But notwithstanding a company's internal policies, no company on a Board of Directors fighting against LGBT civil rights merits honors from Garden State Equality or any other pro-equality organization.

"Let our message resound everywhere," Goldstein continued. "You cannot separate workplace policies from greater social responsibility, for laws that cover workplace discrimination directly affect treatment in the company workplace.

"You cannot boast about being a great company for LGBT equality on 29 days a month, but then work against LGBT equality on the 30th day and expect our appreciation. Equality is an everyday value."

The bill was introduced to state lawmakers after the city of Nashville adopted an anti-discrimination ordinance that would have shielded GLBT workers from bias in the workplace by contractors hired by the city.

A similar bill was proposed in Montana earlier this year by Republican State Rep. Kristin Hanson, but failed to gain traction. As previously reported at EDGE, Hanson's bill would have taken GLBT non-discrimination laws out of the purview of local governments by outlawing such ordinances by cities. A colleague, State Rep. Michael Morre, offered a tangled rationale for the measure.

"You introduce things in one city, you can do things differently in another city, you can do 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," said Morre. "But we need, this is what we do in here, we try to put things into the context of the whole."

A similar sentiment in Colorado two decades ago led to Amendment 2, the notorious anti-gay constitutional amendment that voters ratified in response to municipalities instituting protections for GLBT residents. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the amendment in 1996. However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals twice reaffirmed a virtually identical amendment adopted by the city of Cincinnati and applied to the city's charter in 1993. Cincinnati residents themselves struck the amendment to the city charter in 2004.

A second bill seen as being anti-gay was approved earlier this month by the Tennessee State Senate. The proposed legislation would strengthen the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" rule barring mention of GLBTs in schools, and is championed by Republican State Sen. Stacey Campfield. The so-called "Don't Say Gay" law 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 has justified 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, who 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..

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.