Going door-to-door for equality in Tennessee: Why canvassing matters

If you've kept up with Tennessee Equality Project on Facebook, you know we've been going door-to-door in conservative parts of the state talking about the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act

Here's why.  We wanted to know where the people of Tennessee stand on the bill.  It's not a comprehensive poll, but it still gives us important data.  Second, it gives us the chance to find supporters who will contact their own legislators in areas where we might have few members of our own.  Third, it gives our members another political skill.

Data:  Without canvassing, we are at the mercy of polling organizations or guesswork when it comes to the question of whether Tennesseans support discriminatory bills.  We can't guarantee polls will be conducted on the issue or that they'll be accurate.  Canvassing gives us real data to develop a real sense of people's views.   I should note that we picked conservative districts and middle-of-the-road voters deliberately to get out of our progressive bubbles and echo chambers.

Finding supporters:  We hoped, but didn't know for sure, that we would find supporters of our position on the bill when we began.  It's important that legislators in conservative districts hear from their own constituents.  So we started in Manchester and Maryville this past weekend and were pleasantly surprised that most of the people we talked to are opposed to the bill.  Yes, opposed.  We definitely found people who support it, but most people we've talked to in person so far think it's a futile and expensive effort.  AND they were willing to tell their legislators just that!

Gaining skills:  Most of our canvassers so far had never gone door-to-door for politics before this weekend.  Many were nervous and I'm sure they had their doubts.  I think they found that it was easy and they were also encouraged by the response.  They will now be ready to canvass voters on other issues and for political candidates.  When our movement has more skilled canvassers, we're obviously stronger. 

Get involved:  We have two more canvassing events coming up.  Dickson is this SaturdayBristol is November 7.  I hope you'll join us.  Let's fight this bill and change Tennessee!

Did you find a card from us on your door?

Hi, we're the Tennessee Equality Project, and we were in your neighborhood conducting a survey on the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act.  We're opposed to it because it's discriminatory, futile, and potentially costly to our state.

We also have a variety of programs like Tennessee Open For Business for inclusive companies and SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee

If you would like to stay up to date on our projects, join our email list at this link.

If you would like to support our work, you can volunteer or donate

Do you still have questions? Contact us at chris@tnequalityproject.com .

How Spirit Day might have had an impact in Tennessee

On Thursday about 60 people, most of them high school students, rallied for Spirit Day at Bicentennial Mall in Nashville.  The annual GLAAD event urges people to go purple for the day and stand against bullying and stand up for LGBT youth.  Tennessee Equality Project was honored to partner with GLSEN Middle TN to put the event together and we are grateful for generous funding for our recent youth events from the Nashville Predators Foundation.

How might the event have made an impact?

1.  I hope the youth who attended felt supported.  We know that bullying is a huge problem throughout the state and we also know that family acceptance for LGBT youth is a challenge.  Some students attended with their parents and that was gratifying.  Surrounded by friends, family, and allies, they got a chance to be themselves.

2.  It provided a counter-balance to the negativity they hear in state government.  Our Legislature unfortunately offers few affirming messages for LGBT youth.  But Metro Nashville Council Member Nancy VanReece, who is the first out lesbian to be elected to a legislative body in the state, and an FBI agent spoke to the group about their support.

3. Coincidences in the media.  Three networks covered the event.  Fox17's coverage followed a story about a congregation severing its relationship with the Boy Scouts of America over new pro-gay policies.  WSMV's rally story followed a piece about a teen who had been bullied and sexually exploited.  Here is a link to Channel 5's coverage.  Had there been no Spirit Day coverage, the picture for youth in our area would have been pretty bleak.

4. Working together.  LGBT organizations in Tennessee work together all the time.  But the community may not see it often enough.  I think they got to see a strong partnership tonight and will continue to generate solutions for safer schools.

5.  Adults seeing the need?  I put a question mark on that one because I just don't know.  The media thankfully included the bullying statistics for the state in their stories.  I hope adults in power to change policy noticed.  I know we'll have to keep making our case.

What happened when a legislative committee got together to discuss gender neutral pronouns? Anything but that discussion

On Wednesday afternoon, a Senate Education subcommittee convened to discuss issues of governance at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and in higher education throughout the state.  The issue that brought legislators together--a controversy over gender neutral pronouns at UT-K--was actually barely discussed.

Everyone ended up agreeing that there never had been a policy requirement for gender neutral pronouns at UT-K, but that didn't stop legislators from discussing anything and everything else related to diversity issues in higher education.

Issues of diversity budgeting, staffing, and goal setting came up.  Sex Week came up.  Some legislators suspected that students who are pro-Western civilization are marginalized and that pro-Western civilization faculty are few. 

One legislator assured the small crowd that he has African-American friends before raising questions about freedom of speech and assembly. 

One senator really summed the whole thing up when he asked why he was there.  It really wasn't clear why the hearing was taking place, though the chairman did try to keep things focused.

And that's all right, in one sense.  I'm glad we didn't have to sit through an afternoon of attacks on transgender and gender non-conforming students.  On the other hand, considering that the pronoun issue really wasn't addressed, I have to wonder what on earth is going to land in the final report of recommendations to the full Senate Education Committee.

Time will tell.

Get ready for Spirit Day on October 15, Stand against bullying, Stand up for LGBT youth

The Basics:  October 15 is #SpiritDay when so many LGBT advocates and allies will wear purple to show their support for LGBT youth and to take a stand against bullying.  GLAAD has lots of information and resources at this link.

You can also join GLAAD's Thunderclap to spread the word at this link.

The Tennessee Numbers:  There were 6959 confirmed cases of bullying in Tennessee public schools in 2014, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.  The numbers do not include a breakdown based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

LGBT youth need to know that they are not alone and that are supported.  Tennessee Equality Project is one among many organizations in the state trying to make the lives of LGBT youth better.

What TEP is doing:  This past weekend we partnered with GLSEN Middle TN to put together a training for local high school students that equips them with resources to make their schools safer.  And on Thursday we are partnering with them again to host a Spirit Day rally in Nashville to show support.  It starts at 6:00 p.m. at Bicentennial Mall.  We urge you to attend and RSVP at this link.  Both events have been generously sponsored by the Nashville Predators Foundation.

TEP's work in this area flies under the banner of SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee, a program that operates mainly in East Tennessee but that also works in all parts of the state.  Leslie Wilson-Charles is the coordinator for East Tennessee.  If you are a parent, student, teacher, administrator, or school board member in East Tennessee and you would like to reach out to Leslie, you may contact her at lesliewilsoncharles@gmail.com . 

Your support:  If you would like to support SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee with a tax deductible contribution, please go to this link.  We are grateful for your support that makes it possible to do more in Tennessee.

Top 5 Things to Know about Coming Out in Tennessee

It's National Coming Out Day.  For some people it's an easy process to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.  For most of us, we faced at least a few obstacles.  Here are some things to know.

1.  It's really your decision.  You can come out on your own terms and in your own time.  You may decide to wait until you're financially independent or until you move to a new town.  Or you may decide you've waited long enough.  Maybe everyone else knows, as you've suspected.  You can come out to friends first or family first or just one of those groups.  You may decide to wait a long time to be out at work.  It remains your decision. 

2. Support is available in every region of Tennessee.  Having traveled the state extensively, I can assure you there are LGBT people and allies everywhere.  You'd expect support in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Clarksville, and Murfreesboro.  But it's available in Jackson, Cookeville, Crossville, Johnson City, Bristol, Elizabethton, Maryville, Morristown, Dickson, Franklin, Lebanon, Martin, Cleveland, and everywhere in between.  And we'll be glad to help you find supportive people close to you.  If the thought of coming out and coming to terms with your sexual orientation or gender identity is overwhelming to you and you are considering taking your own life, please contact the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network

3.  You can be as religious or irreligious as you are now when you come out.  If you're religious, you may find people preaching at you and trying to use faith to constrict your identity.  You may find you can no longer continue with religion.  Whatever path you take, be assured that many have taken it before you.  Many have continued and even grown in their faith and many would tell you they've grown out of it.  But coming out does not necessarily have to change your relationship to your basic beliefs.  Will you be able to continue to be a member of your current congregation?  Maybe not.  Some of the dominant faith traditions in Tennessee are frankly not welcoming.  You may have to search for a faith community that both resonates with your religious understanding and is open and affirming.  But the options are growing.  If you decide to leave religion behind, it might be meaningful for you to engage with some other group for volunteering in order to get to know more people.  LGBT and progressive groups around the state can always use more volunteers. 

4.  You will run into people who don't get it, use the wrong terms, and fumble in trying to support you.  As anyone who has lived here any length of time can tell you, many people either hold socially conservative religious views or rather traditional views about gender roles or both.  You might be treated as an anomaly or a stereotype.  You will also run into people who are friendly but call you something that's rather outdated or they might use a term that really offends you.  It's OK to give people the terminology that best fits your identity.  It's also OK to take a break from people who refuse to use your new name or the right terminology...a long break in some cases.  We often hear the phrase in activist circles that "It's not my job to educate you."  That's true to a large degree.  You don't have to answer any questions about your sex life or genitalia or really anything else.  It may fatigue you.  But if the other person is trying and you value the relationship, you may decide it's worth the time to talk it out.  You know best who's worth it.

***It's important to note that sometimes people become violent or abusive.  Your safety is of paramount importance.  You may need to seek help with a domestic violence shelter or law enforcement or through the courts.  You may simply need to distance yourself from some people who won't accept your identity.  Trust your instincts and observations and get to safety if you need to.

5.  The movement for equality needs you.  Whether you're coming out as LGBT or as an ally, we know it's not always easy.  But the fact that it's not easy for everyone is really the evidence that you are needed in Tennessee.  Volunteer at the Pride celebration closest to you.  Attend the meetings of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition.  Become part of a business network near you like the Nashville LGBT Chamber or Outlook Chattanooga.  There are PFLAG chapters around the state.  The Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, OutCentral in Nashville, and the Nooga Diversity Center could use your help.  And TEP committees throughout the state would value your efforts as well as many organizations I'm leaving out.

Coming out is always about you first.  But you will find that the broader movement for equality in Tennessee is full of resources for you and you will also find that you are a vital part of growing that movement so that coming out can be easier for the next person.

The big 3 elections are over and it's time to revisit the local government advocacy agenda

With Memphis elections winding up on Thursday, Tennessee's three largest cities (including Nashville and Knoxville) have now elected new governments--with some familiar figures and new faces.  Elections are long and painful processes in many ways, but we now know with whom we'll be working.  And regardless of the outcome, you advocate with or lobby the government you have.

Work can now begin in earnest on the local government advocacy agenda that TEP presented in April of this year.  New administrations and new legislative bodies have their priorities.  They often talk of the first 100 days in which they attempt to tackle what they view as the core problems facing their cities.  It is up to LGBT people and allies to make sure that clearly articulated policy positions begin to be part of the discussion.  TEP will be doing just that in local governments around the state.

The results may not be immediate.  As I noted, local officials have their own ideas about what comes first.  Wherever and whenever we fit on the agenda, we aim to be part of it.  Victory is not guaranteed and your support is necessary

In that spirit, I want to remind everyone of the local government advocacy agenda for Tennessee.  At this point, one revision is necessary.  We would obviously drop domestic partner registries.  We no longer need to advance those because of the Supreme Court's marriage ruling.  The marriage ruling is, of course, under attack in the Legislature, and we will defend that.  But the rest of the local government agenda is up to date.  I urge you to take time to go through it and think about how you can help.

I. Domestic Partner Registries.  If the United States Supreme Court does not rule in favor of marriage equality for Tennessee, it will be many years before the State Constitution extends equal marriage to same-sex couples.  Until that time, Tennessee cities and counties must do what they can to protect same-sex couples.  The City of Atlanta, for example, maintains a domestic partnership registry for all residents of the city and city employees.  It may also be possible to explore a registry that includes anyone who works in a particular jurisdiction.  The certificate of domestic partnership is accepted by many private employers as proof of a relationship for the company’s own domestic partner benefits programs.  For more information on Atlanta’s approach, go to http://www.atlantaga.gov/index.aspx?page=1087 .


II.  Safe schools.  Only Knox County, Metro Nashville, Putnam County, and Shelby County school districts include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination/anti-bullying policies.  We continue to advocate the inclusion of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors in school district policies across the state.  In addition, we will look for opportunities to help school districts incorporate LGBT competency training for administration and faculty and make them aware of the federal Equal Access Act to create a space for Gay/LGBT-Straight Alliance clubs in schools.


III. Gender transition/gender confirmation healthcare for city or county government employees.  Many people commonly think first of surgery when this topic comes up in conversation.  Gender related healthcare is a broader topic that relates to all the options that help transgender people live in their true gender.  Healthcare issues pertain not only to the initial stages of transition.  If a new  employee of a city or county government has already transitioned, other health care needs exist.  Employee insurance programs in local governments should include these needs.


IV.  Building relationships with local law enforcement and district attorneys across the state to address hate crimes and domestic violence.  The persistence of hate crimes, a national outbreak of violence against transgender women, and alarmingly high rates of domestic violence in the LGBT community call for closer relationships between advocacy organizations, local law enforcement agencies, and district attorneys.  These relationships can help achieve justice for victims and safety for survivors as well as help build support for state legislation and policy advances that adequately address these issues.  


V.  Funding for youth transitional housing.  LGBT young adults (18-24) have few options when they become homeless.  Many private solutions may not be fully inclusive and may even be hostile to LGBT people.  Local governments cannot require the private sector to serve inclusively of the LGBT community in Tennessee because of a 2011 state law.  But they can expand their own funding and they can do more to make sure their housing authorities are applying for all available federal programs related to youth transitional housing.  This policy goal may involve, for example, setting a target for a certain number of transitional housing units within a jurisdiction.  


VI.  LGBT-friendly affordable housing for seniors.  More cities like Chicago are looking at LGBT-friendly affordable housing options for seniors. See this article for information http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/10/06/chicago-minneapolis-philadelphia-senior-lgbt-housing/16115641/ .   The first generations of LGBT people who have lived most of their lives out of the closet are aging and in need of solutions.  In some cases they feel the need to go back into the closet with respect to their gender identity or sexual orientation, which is an isolating experience that leads to poor mental and physical health outcomes.  City and county governments can make sure existing HUD non-discrimination policies are fully understood and implemented by staff.  Local governments can also help their housing authorities implement LGBT senior cultural competency training for staff.  These solutions are readily available even before the discussion of dedicated units or expanded housing options begins.


VII.  LGBT-competent staff at health facilities.  Local governments across the state are involved in providing health services from hospitals to health departments and clinics to emergency medical services.  LGBT people, like all people, deserve excellence and respect when they seek services.  Local governing bodies and boards that oversee city and county health services should require personnel to improve their competency in serving the LGBT community in order to improve health outcomes.


VIII.  Dignity/Inclusion/Non-Discrimination resolutions for smaller local governments.  While it may not be possible to pass non-discrimination ordinances in smaller towns in Tennessee, local governing bodies should consider dignity/inclusion/non-discrimination resolutions like the ones passed by many towns in Mississippi.  The resolution passed by Oxford, Mississippi reads:  “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of the City of Oxford declare it the policy of the City to reject discrimination of any kind and to respect the inherent worth of every person without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, sexual orientation, family status, veteran status, disability or source of income, this the 4th day of March, 2014.”  The entire text is available at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/03/05/1282304/-Oxford-Mississippi-becomes-3rd-MS-city-to-pass-LGBT-euuality-resolution .  The goal of these resolutions is to inhibit discrimination and increase the safety of LGBT people in smaller towns.  It will also have the effect of showing more state officials that equality is a value cherished throughout Tennessee.  


The Work Begins:  The Tennessee Equality Project has begun the work of becoming the kind of organization equipped to pursue these advocacy objectives.  We announce these goals in hopes of gaining the support of candidates and current elected officials in local governments throughout Tennessee.  But we especially publish these goals to draw more members of the LGBT community and allies into this important work.  The work ahead will be difficult because the issues are complicated and the solutions we propose require education and consensus-building.  We ask for your help as volunteers and financial supporters so we can advance these important goals together.  You can provide financial support for our local government policy work at this link .

Victory for now in Blount County, but the organizing continues


(photo by Matthew Hardenbergh used with permission)

Maryville, TN--The army in red scored an important upset victory on Tuesday as the Blount County Commission failed to take up a resolution asking to be spared God's wrath and asking Tennessee leaders to defend "natural marriage." 

Over 200 marriage equality advocates showed up to protest the resolution.  They never had to say a word, though, because after failing to adopt the agenda, which included the anti-marriage equality resolution, the commission abruptly adjourned the meeting. 

TEP Knox, Anderson, and Blount Counties Committee Chair (and TEP Foundation Chair) Gwen Schablik told the Knoxville News Sentinel, "But for now, we’re definitely organizing and continuing and watching, watching to see what they do. And we’re not going to give up.” 

The sponsor, Commissioner, Karen Miller, vows to bring the resolution back.  TEP and our allies such as PFLAG Maryville will also be back to fight the measure that garnered significant national attention. 

Continuing the Fight:  Immediately upon learning about the resolution, TEP leaders sprang into action and organized people to attend the meeting, engaged media outlets, helped citizens contact members of the County Commission, and prepared remarks to be used at the Commission meeting.

YOUR tax deductible contribution to the TEP Foundation makes it possible to teach organizing skills to the LGBT and ally community throughout the state and it helps us advance the values of equality and inclusion in the media.  Click here to make your contribution NOW.

More Coverage:  For a sampling of other coverage of the historic Blount County Commission meeting, go to these links:  WBIRChattanooga Times Free Press/AP, Reuters, The Daily Times (Maryville), and WATE.

TEP responds to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's hateful conference on transgender people

I have to thank Vickie Davis for bringing to my attention the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's October 5 event called "Transgender Confusion and Transformational Christianity."  You can find the link here

The event takes place in Louisville, but I feel the need to write about it since the Southern Baptist presence is so strong in Tennessee in terms of numbers of congregations and official organs of the denomination.  I will also note that some of my response is accessible to any person who follows these issues, but that some of it is a response from within Christianity.  I do not think it necessary for one to be religious to produce a strong response.  I simply note that it provides an angle for my response, given my own theological background.

I'll tip by hand.  Based on what I can tell, the confusion referenced in the title is evident among those putting on the conference, not transgender people.  I'll go out on a limb and predict it will not be transformational because those in power at the seminary and in the denomination are not allowing themselves to be transformed or changed.  And I have a hard time recognizing it as Christianity even though they use lots of Christian words.

And before I get further into the content of the conference, I just have to note that their use of the colors of the transgender pride flag is completely shameful.

Impetus of the conference:  So what do they say?  According to the text of their video on the page: 

Our culture is flooded with transgender confusion.  Parents delay the announcement of their infant's gender until the child makes an independent choice.  Laws are passed allowing persons to choose which public restrooms they would use.  Surgery attempts to erase the obvious physical indicators of manhood and womanhood.  The Christian Gospel speaks into this confusion with revolutionary clarity.  God sovereignly assigns a gender to people created in His image.  The powerful grace of Jesus Christ redeems and restores to sanity our thinking which has been corrupted by sin.  The Church must speak with biblical conviction into this chaos with the clarity and love of Jesus.

This is an utter disaster in the making.  When disasters happen, you have to sort through the wreckage.  So here we go.

Imagined harms:  The first four sentences are the supposed religious and societal harms that come from so-called transgender confusion.  Did you notice something?  Not one of these harms has anything to do with someone who is not transgender.  In other words, the conference organizers don't and can't show how anyone's gender transition/confirmation/identity affects anyone else in a negative way. Let's take them one-by-one.  

1. Confusion:  The transgender confusion they speak of, though they won't admit it, is actually a wider hostility to transgender people, despite growing acceptance.  It manifests itself in job discrimination, homelessness, suicide attempts, etc. among transgender people.  But let's get at the root of things here.  These conference speakers are confused, but they can't admit that because they're credentialed so they project their confusion onto transgender people. 

2. Parents and gender:  So what if parents won't tell you the gender of their child?  There's no evidence that this practice is truly widespread, by the way.  But isn't it worth asking why we care so much?  Is it because we are so eager to start putting our gender expectations on children? Probably so.  But if the practice of not announcing their child's gender does become more common among parents in the U.S., I think our culture can stretch to handle it without descending into anarchy.  It might even lead to conversations about gender-based violence and pay differentials.  Wouldn't that be welcome!

3. Restrooms:  There it is.  You knew they'd say it.  I'm surprised it wasn't listed first.  The conference is trying to scare you with fantasies about who is in the restroom with you.  It's been said thousands of times, but let's say it again.  Transgender people are in the restroom to use the restroom like everyone else.  Restroom choice is a safety issue, which OSHA now recognizes

4. Surgery:  First, not all transgender people have it.  Many can't afford it because of economic struggles and others have no interest in it.  Again, I'd have to note that whether someone has gender confirmation/transition surgery primarily affects the transgender person and not others.  Perhaps the clue comes with the conference's phrase "erase the obvious physical indicators of manhood and womanhood."  What's at stake here?  Are the conference leaders suggesting they want to treat men and women differently and if they can't tell who's who, they won't know how to act?  I think that's what they're stuck on instead of asking why they're treating people differently based on gender in the first place. 

Twisting the Gospel as the solution:  The remaining sentences in the video give us the proposed solution--the Gospel.  But for the life of me I can't remember any classical Protestant reformer intimately linking gender to phrases like justification by faith.  The Gospel pertains to the doctrine of redemption in Christianity.  But what the conference verbiage actually does, despite using redemption-like words, is skip back to the doctrine of creation when it says, "God sovereignly assigns a gender to people created in His image." 

This is breathtaking in its audacity.  Harking back to Calvinism, which is a growing influence in Southern Baptist circles, but twisting it...God's eternal election of human souls is less about salvation and more about micro-managing the gender of each individual human being who has ever lived and will live in history.  That's apparently the good news they have in mind for transgender people.

And guess what else they changed about the Gospel?  Apparently the Gospel "redeems and restores to sanity our thinking" about transgender issues.  Yes, conference organizers are all but telling you that Jesus came preaching and died on the cross to change people's minds about gender. 

The strange departures from traditional doctrinal understandings of Christianity at work in this conference are sad enough in themselves, but the real issue is the ongoing persecution of transgender people that the perspective enables.  If Southern Baptist leaders wanted to "speak with biblical conviction into this chaos with the clarity and love of Jesus," as they say they want to, they would explore the concrete harms transgender people endure, the connection between hateful forms of religion and those harms, and how they can begin working for inclusive congregations. 

And they have every reason to do so if they put down their strange interpretation of Calvin and pick up Galatians 3:28, which says among other things, that "nor is there male or female."  When the leaders of this important faith community lead their congregations into a welcoming posture, we will know that real transformation is taking place.

-Chris Sanders, M.Div.


TEP welcomes Joe Davis, husband of Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis, to Nashville

The Tennessee Equality Project extends our welcome to Joe Davis, husband of Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis, to Nashville on Thursday.

Joining an august body of divines known as the Tennessee Pastors Network, Davis will speak at a rally at the Capitol whose topics include "gay marriage, terrorism, education, health care and religious liberty," according to the Associated Press.  Speakers at the rally will reveal whether they support or oppose the items on this list.

When he crosses into Tennessee, Mr. Davis will find a state where all the county clerks are in compliance with the Supreme Court's marriage ruling and have been for several weeks.  And when he enters Nashville he will be in a city whose current mayor and mayor-elect are strong allies of the LGBT community and whose county clerk was among the first in Tennessee to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

Nashville has a long history of performers heading downtown and trying to make it big and we wish Mr. Davis luck.  Our advice--connect with a better songwriter and work on harmonizing.  A recent poll says most Americans aren't singing your tune. 

As Minnie Pearl used to say, "HOWDY!"

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