Nashville Mayor Calls for Broader GLBT Employment Protections

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday December 16, 2010

The departure of a lesbian women's soccer coach from a Christian university has spurred the mayor of Nashville, Tennessee to call for broader LGBT protections in the workplace.

The city of Nashville has some protections in place for some city employees, but at least eight city commissions and boards are not covered by those protections. Mayor Karl Dean wrote to all eight entities to say that the city's government should take the lead in promoting employment protections for the city's LGBT workers, reported local newspaper the Tennessean on Dec. 15.

The mayor's letter followed the departure of lesbian women's soccer coach Lisa Howe from Belmont University, located in Nashville. Differing accounts have surfaced in the media as to why Howe left her position with the university after having led the team to a championship victory in last year's season. Publicly, Howe said that leaving was her choice, but team members came forward to say that Howe had communicated privately that the university gave her a choice of leaving or being fired. Howe and her female life partner deciding to become parents reportedly caused the departure. The university denied that Howe was fired, and said that it does not discriminate against LGBT employees.

The story broke in the university's student newspaper, Belmont Vision, which reported on Dec. 2 that Howe, would be leaving her post. Only a few days before, Howe had disclosed that she and her female partner had decided to become parents. Howe had been with the university since 2005.

The student paper initially referred to Howe's departure as a "firing," but an update reported that, according to a statement from the school's athletic director, Mike Strickland, Howe had made her own decision to leave. "Women's soccer coach Lisa Howe has informed the university of her intent to conclude her employment with Belmont," the statement read. "This was a decision Coach Howe made."

The statement also included a message from Howe. "I appreciate Belmont University giving me the opportunity to lead the women's soccer program for the last six season," Howe said. "I want to thank all the student-athletes who worked so hard for and dedicated themselves to me and the program. I am at a point in my life where I am satisfied to move on, and I wish the Belmont women's soccer team continued success."

But a Dec. 3 article in the Tennessean reported that, according to members of the women's soccer team, Howe said her resignation was the result of having been "pressured" by the administration.

According to team member Erica Carter, Howe "said she went to the administration to get permission to talk to us" regarding the plan Howe and her partner had to become parents. Howe wished to obtain permission to speak about that aspect of her private like in order to "bring us to light on her becoming a mother," the student added. "She didn't want us to hear it from other sources. She has never talked about her personal life before. We always hear rumors, speculation and things. She wanted this to come directly from her."

Carter said that Howe disclosed that she had been offered a choice: resign or be fired. Carter's roommate and fellow teammate Ashley Hudak said that the reason for the administration's response was that Howe had outed herself as a lesbian by making the announcement, which itself was not made with the official permission of the administration.

"She said she had tried to clear telling us she was having a baby through the athletic department and they weren't allowing her to," said Hudak.

"[Strickland] basically said we have the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy and when she told us about the pregnancy, it violated that," the team's captain, Sari Lin, told the newspaper. "She was telling us what her sexual preference is. He said you can hide your sexuality, but you can't hide a baby. He pretty much told me that once the baby was born she was going to get fired anyway, so it's better to do it sooner than later."

Setting An Example?

News station WSMV-TV reported that Howe's departure had made ripples in the university community. Said one freshman, Hillary Fischer, "I feel like if Belmont came out and said, 'We chose to dismiss her because of this reason, this reason and this reason, and this is where we will forever stand on it,' then that would be a different issue, and students could decide if they wanted to be a part of that."

"In retrospect, I realize we've done a poor job of communicating," Fisher told the media. "In the 10 years that I have served as Belmont's president, sexual orientation has not been considered in making hiring, promotion, salary or dismissal decisions."

But at least one anti-gay religious leader also spoke up, offering commentary that assumed the school had a policy in place denying positions for gays and lesbians. "I think they have taken a very strong biblical stance, true to their own heritage, true to their own mission statement," said Randy Davis, who heads up the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

Under Tennessee state law, GLBTs are not protected from employment discrimination, and there are no federal protections for gay workers. Davis said that was the way it should be, and suggested that protections for GLBT are not a matter of civil rights, "Sexual orientation, for many people, we believe, is a choice," the religious leader asserted. By contrast, Davis said, "The color of your skin is not a choice. So I think that [instituting anti-discrimination protections for GLBT workers] would be a step in the wrong direction."

Howe also commented, saying in a statement, "I congratulate and praise Dr. Fisher for announcing this non-discrimination policy, which will set an example for Christian schools and universities across the country. I look forward to seeing this policy implemented."

However, Howe had told the Associated Press earlier, "I do know that policies and attitudes would have to change for me to come back to Belmont and feel safe and welcome and for me to feel like my family would be safe and welcome."

The story picked up momentum when a major donor to the school, businessman and Republican politician Mike Curb, a trustee emeritus of the university, called for the school to re-hire Howe. "It's time for Belmont to change and to recognize that we have gay students, faculty and staff," Curb stated, adding, "I want to see this board and the school leadership act like Christians."

Curb also indicated he wanted recognition of the world's realities. "We are trying to pretend that something doesn't exist when it does," he stated, going on to add that an appearance that the university has anti-gay policies would impact its stature. "Belmont has to decide whether they want to be a national recognized university--particularly with their school of music business--or they want to be a church," Curb stated.

Curb went to Fisher with his concerns, the Tennessean reported. Fisher told the newspaper that he had no comment. But the school's Faculty Senate did: the body voted unanimously to support the university's GLBT students and staff.

Curb was elected to the post of Lieutenant Governor of California, where he served form 1979-1983 under then-Gov. Jerry Brown, according to a Wikipedia article. Along with Ronald Reagan and other high-profile politicians, Curb opposed an attempt to outlaw gay and gay-supportive teachers.

The Tennessean reported in the Dec. 15 article that the city's Metro Council had taken up legislation aimed at canceling an agreement about parks with the university following Howe's departure. The article also said that, according to a spokesperson for the mayor, Dean had sent his letter to the eight agencies because of the Belmont University situation.

"The public sector has a responsibility to show leadership on significant public issues such [as] the one embraced by this ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity," the mayor's letter, dated Dec. 13, said.

One of the agencies the mayor addressed in the letter was the Convention Center Authority, which, like the other agencies Dean wrote, has autonomy from the Metro Council. The chair of the Convention Center Authority, Marty Dickens, is also the chair of the university's Board of Trustees, the Tennessean reported. Dickens stated that the school should be free to uphold Christian standards in its employment practices. However, a spokesperson for the Convention Center Authority said that Dickens had seen to it that a motion would be made to adopt the anti-discrimination policies of the Metro Council.

But at least one council member had a critique for the mayor because of the timing of the letter. "It's been months and months since we passed the nondiscrimination ordinance" for the Metro Council, said Michael Craddock. "Why didn't he write that letter after this passed? Why has he waited until someone has a problem to write a letter?"

In another Tennessee city, Memphis, similar legislation was taken off the table last summer when a GLBT equality advocacy organization concluded that the proposed ordinance would not be given "a fair hearing" and asked that it be withdrawn. U.K. gay news source Pink News reported on the Memphis ordinance, called the Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance (ENDO), on Aug. 27.

"It became very apparent that it was being treated differently, and it became very, very apparent we were not going to get a fair hearing from the majority of the council members," said Michelle Bliss of the Tennessee Equality Project.

Religious leaders attacked the proposed ordinance as an attempt by gays to "desensitize" Memphis residents to GLBT equality issues. "It was a subtle move to desensitize what's taking place as a way to ease in a lifestyle and to cause everyone who's against it to agree with it," declared Golden Gate Cathedral cleric Edward Stephens.

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.