Tenn. Continues Assault on GLBT Equality

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday April 27, 2011

Even as Tennessee's state government mulls a so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill that would prohibit elementary school teachers from addressing the existence of GLBT individuals and their families, another proposed law targets anti-discrimination ordinances that would protect gay workers at the city level.

The bill, which would roll back newly-enacted anti-discrimination protections in the city of Nashville, would restrict the sorts of protections that city governments could offer their constituents, local newspaper the topnews|text|Business|Tennessean reported on April 26.

The State House of Representatives approved the bill by a wide margin, 73-24. The bill stipulates that city and county governments cannot offer anti-discrimination protections that are more comprehensive than those enshrined 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.

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

GLBT blog JoeMyGod reported in an April 19 posting that a "very trusted tipster" had alerted him to Hanson's alleged status as a closeted lesbian.

"She lives with a woman who she introduces to others as her 'friend' but has confirmed to a handful of people is her partner," the tipster claimed. "The partner's ex has also been telling people what's up."

JoeMyGod noted that Hanson was elected in the midterm elections as a Tea Party-backed GOP candidate. The bill was prompted by a single Montana city--the university town of Missoula--enacting just such protections.

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.

The Tennessean article said that Casada declared that the bill was not targeting Nashville and had been under consideration since before Nashville extended such protections. Casada also sought to frame the issue in terms of Christians being persecuted for faith-based anti-gay beliefs.

"Why did the city of Nashville deem it appropriate to jump on a small Christian school and impose its morality on a small Christian school?" Casada demanded, referring to Belmont University, where a lesbian soccer coach was reportedly told to resign after she came out to her team.

The departure of coach Lisa Howe generated controversy both on and off the campus of the Christian university, with a prominent Nashville businessman and Republican calling for Belmont to revise its policies regarding gay and lesbian staff.

In the end, Belmont did revise its policies. Casada did not note this in his quote to the Tennessean.

'Don't Say Gay'

Another anti-gay bill that has provoked controversy would restrict teachers' speech in the classroom. That measure has been approved by a subcommittee in the Tennessee State Senate.

The "Don't Say Gay" bill would, if it were to become law, bar any reference to sexual minorities in public schools until students reach the ninth grade. Students hear anti-gay epithets and erroneous information concerning gays long before then, 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 law is the brainchild of GOP state lawmaker Stacey Campfield, who proposed the measure for six years running during his tenure as a state representative. Now that he has been elected as a state senator, Campfield's anti-gay measure has gained traction, receiving the approval of a subcommittee on April 20, reported knoxnews.com on April 21.

The bill allows teachers to discuss heterosexuality in the classroom with younger students, however. The state senator claims that schoolteachers are talking about gays with elementary school students, but education officials say that this is not true to their knowledge, the article said.

"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 called for readers to sign a petition against advancing the measure any farther.

"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.

Fellow GOP lawmaker Jim Tracy noted that the law is unnecessary, because existing state law makes it an offense for school personnel to depart from an approved "family life curriculum." Even so, Tracy supported the measure insofar as he proposed amending the bill to require that a study be launched to determine whether Campfield's claim that gays were a subject of classroom discussion was true.

The bill was further amended at the behest of Republican State Sen. Brian Kelsey, who suggested language specifying that no reference to homosexuality would be allowed under the family life curriculum. Both amendments were approved.

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.

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.