What's going on with parenting forms and the Tennessee courts?

Yesterday Fox 17 in Nashville reported that the Administrative Office of the Courts in Tennessee was changing parenting forms from "mother" and "father" to "parent 1" and "parent 2."  The change would have put Tennessee more in line with the Supreme Court marriage decision.

After the Fox 17 story ran, we began hearing that the AOC had reversed themselves and reverted back to the old forms for now.

So we contacted the AOC and here's what the Director of Communications said today:

Mr. Sanders,
The parenting plan forms were changed from mother and father to parent 1 and part 2.
After receiving feedback regarding a recent change made to the permanent parenting plan form, the AOC has reviewed the procedures and determined that, before making any changes to the form, the AOC should consult with the Domestic Relations Committee of the Tennessee Judicial Conference.
We have reverted to the previous form and the Committee has been notified.
Here are things to note:
1.  It is encouraging that the courts in Tennessee realized that their forms needed to reflect the realities of the families involved in parenting.
2.  It is discouraging that the courts bent to the pressure of Right wing legislators.
3.  But it's not the end of the process.  The courts will look at the issue closely and there is still an opportunity to provide inclusive forms. 
TEP will monitor the process and keep you updated.

Tennessee's week in faith and equality: Fragile fundamentalism and our opportunities to respond

The last week or so, the news about the engagement between faith and equality in Tennessee presents rich opportunities for reflection and action.

McMinnville stoning story:  The most notable example has been the ongoing discussion of a McMinnville minister's use of the TEFaith.pngpassage in Leviticus about stoning LGBT people.  What did we learn?  Responding to hateful rhetoric CAN transform the situation.  It doesn't always, but in this case it did.  The national and local media spotlight resulted in something closer to a real conversation than the various sides in the culture war usually have.  I admit I was surprised and pleased when the minister called me.  We knew the minute the conversation began that we wouldn't achieve full agreement, but we ended at a different place.  And one of those places was the minister admitting that hateful rhetoric is connected to violence. 

The example points to a variety of approaches for addressing anti-equality religious rhetoric.  Media engagement plays a role.  Theological reflection plays a role.  Highlighting the violence experienced by LGBT people plays a role.  But what are we missing?

Tennessee, a laboratory of religion and equality issues:  Given the persistence of fundamentalism and anti-equality religious rhetoric in states like Tennessee and the influence of that rhetoric on politics, we are a living lab and we need to be conducting experiments to transform the situation.  And when you experiment, you won't always get it right. 

What we can't do is rely on some magic set of talking points generated at the national level and plop them down here.  We need messages and action that fit particular situations in Tennessee communities. 

We need ideas:  So we need to open the lab.  We need some trial and error, observation and adaptation.  And we need to be open to outrageous ideas and small, steady plans alike.  Whether it be equality tent revivals or tracts at truck stops, we need to look at a diversity of solutions because no one approach is likely to do it all.

But it is an imperative because we have to address this critical piece in our safety and well being in Tennessee.  What are your ideas?

TEP to honor Wynn, Rubenfeld as Champions of Equality at annual Olympus gala

August 18, 2015

For immediate release

Contact:  Chris Sanders, (615) 390-5252 or chris@tnequalityproject.com

TEP to honor Wynn, Rubenfeld as Champions of Equality at annual Olympus gala

Nashville, TN:  The Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) will honor Davidson County Clerk Brenda Wynn and attorney Abby Rubenfeld as Champions of Equality at their annual Olympus gala at the Parthenon on November 14.

As Davidson County Clerk, Brenda Wynn was among the first clerks in the state to begin providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the June 26 Supreme Court decision striking down Tennessee's ban on same-sex marriage.  Wynn worked with equality advocates prior to the ruling to provide an orderly transition to marriage equality in the Nashville area.  Attorney Abby Rubenfeld has led historic legal challenges to discriminatory state laws in Tennessee for many years including a challenge to Tennessee's sodomy law, the Legislature's nullification of Metro Nashville's contractor non-discrimination ordinance, and most recently a successful challenge to the state's same-sex marriage ban. 

"We will look back on 2015 as a turning point for Tennessee's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community," notes TEP executive director Chris Sanders.  "Celebrating the roles played by Brenda Wynn and Abby Rubenfeld inspires us to continue working for the full legal and lived equality of all members of our community."

The celebration begins at 7:00 p.m. at the Parthenon in Nashville on November 14.  Tickets are available at the linkRSVP at the Facebook page for updates

The Tennessee Equality Project was founded in 2004 to work for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Tennessee.


Summer of Love Letter 6: Searching for allies in Morristown

I'm going to try to avoid the formulaic, expected lines in this letter.  The experience was singular, even though there were aspects of my visit to Morristown that exhibited shared patterns with other parts of the state. 

For example, in more of the smaller Tennessee towns, I'm seeing Confederate battle flags in the back of trucks--true in Maryville and in Morristown.  Not stickers...actual flags.  It's curious because East Tennessee was so pro-Union.  But rather than these patterns, what I most experienced during this visit was difference...difference in terms of the challenges and some very happy differences in terms of allies.

And I met some great allies while I was in town--the theatre community is strong and All Saints Episcopal Church was supportive of hamblencountycourthouse.jpgour event.  Both are refuges for LGBT people and allies and it was really encouraging to meet people who recognize how important these resources are.

What was unclear to me is who the allies in local government are in Morristown and Hamblen County.  Our discussion revealed hints, but nothing definitive.  Not far away, of course, Greeneville boats an openly gay alderman.  It also appears that there is no GSA at Walters State Community College, and that's troubling if it's true.  I contrast that with Jackson State Community College, which has a thriving GSA that serves as a vital resource in the region.  If there's not one, starting one is a priority. 

I left with the feeling that the region is left out too often.  It's not the Tri-Cities and it's not Knoxville.  It has its own character. Our movement has to do better at connecting with this region.  And I think there are concrete ways we can improve our work in the area. 

I'd like to thank TEP Board member Jimmy Proffitt and his husband, Mic, for hosting us for a thought-provoking, fun afternoon. 

Summer of Love Letter 5: Threats faced by LGBT youth front and center

A group of 21 people gathered Sunday on the campus of Maryville College for the latest stop on the Summer of Love tour. 

The discussion was wide-ranging, which is not surprising because the group was well informed about equality issues to begin with.  Picking up on some themes we explored at the Dickson stop, the group spent a lot of time offering their thoughts on the threats to LGBT youth.  Of course, homelessness was a major point in the discussion.  One participant reminded everyone that LGBT youth homelessness isn't always visible in a conventional way with some youth shifting from place to place every few weeks.  And that led naturally into a discussion of the kinds of survival economies that result such as sex work and human trafficking. 

I was intrigued by the kinds of resources and solutions that the participants discussed.  Their grasp of the issue and their ability to think through building a network of support gave me a great deal of hope that in places like Blount County, which are just outside the state's largest cities, we can do more than make a dent in problem of LGBT youth homeless in Tennessee.

Building a solid network of support in every part of Tennessee is a big task, but it feels less daunting after each stop on the Summer of Love tour. 

We are grateful to TEP Foundation Chair Gwen Schablik and her wife Erin for hosting the event today.  The grilled hot dogs, baked beans, and the discussion made it picnic to remember.  The tour continues in Morristown on Saturday.  Find out more and RSVP at the link.



What if something beautiful were happening for equality in Tennessee and we missed it?

Tennessee politics confronts us with something hideous almost every week.  The spectacles of hatred are so frequent that we have trained ourselves to stare at them, aroused by them AS IF they were beautiful.  We experience, or seem to based on social media reactions, a rush of disgust.  We get our fix every week and it's a good thing, too, because we come to need it.

Approaching the hideous:  Before I move on to the beautiful, which is promised in the title,  I want to linger with the hideous element for a minute and offer an ethic or a brief approach to the hideous side of our politics.  Staring at and sharing and again staring at the hideous must not transfix us.  We must see the hideous without staring because if we stare and share and stare again, we lose our sight, particularly we lose sight of what's beautiful, and we lose time needed for responsible action in the face of the hideous.

Staring and sharing and staring again at the hideous qualities of our political life are corrosive to activism.  If we stare, we can't see our way out of the maze.  Or to borrow another Classical image, the hideous facet of our politics is a Medusa that turns us to stone.  We will need our flesh and we will need movement to become free.

So to put the matter succinctly, see the hideous, acknowledge it, respect its power, but get ready to move your eyes, ears, bodies, and minds through it to another place.

Beautiful is not hot:  And that place is the beautiful.  Beauty in this case doesn't mean who's "hot."  Beautiful people are those who LightUpTN.pngare trying as best they can to live authentically and freely, especially those whom the forces of hideous politics in our state are trying to hinder.  Their striving and their moments of overcoming are what is truly beautiful.

More concretely, what is it that is so beautiful that is happening in Tennessee?  Every day a couple, who before June 26 couldn't do so, is going to the courthouse to get a marriage license.  Every day students who know they are different are finding the courage to resist their bullies, every day Tennesseans are coming out to coworkers, and every day people are finding places where they are not persecuted and even killed because of their gender. 

We don't deny the hideous in order to look only at the beautiful.  But we should look at both and for different reasons.  The hideous is a reminder and even a call to overcome an obstacle.  The beautiful is where we are headed.    If we look around, rather than stare at one, we will see both.  And both are necessary for our community's vision of itself and our path forward.

Considering our own practices:  What does that mean in a practical sense?  Everyone's use of social media is intensely personal.  It is your page, your timeline, your feed, after all, and you are free to do what you will.  No one else has to look.  But if I may suggest it, consider how you share the hideous elements.  Do you share them in a way that erodes hope?  If your share them without comment, perhaps you are.  If you share them with the comment:  "I've got to get out of this F*(#ing state," then the answer is probably "yes."  What if when we shared the hideous, we said, "Here's where we have some work to do?" Or even better, "I've thought about it and I've decided I'm going to dedicate myself to dealing with this problem."   It is, indeed, your page, your feed, your timeline, etc., and it is your choice.  It is also your opportunity. 

Lead the movement for equality right where you are and help your friends see their way through the hideous to something else, something beautiful we can all share.

TEP warns City of Murfreesboro about transgender discrimination in wake of Fire Chief hire

After learning that the City of Murfreesboro has tapped Mark Foulks as the next head of the Murfreesboro Fire and Rescue Department, the Tennessee Equality Project sent the following information to Mayor Shane McFarland and Director of Human Resources Glen Godwin.  Part of Mr. Foulks' past record indicates anti-transgender harassment while he was employed by the City of Knoxville, as Out & About Nashville details in this recent piece.

To the Honorable Shane McFarland and Mr. Glen Godwin

Dear Mayor McFarland and Mr. Godwin:

This weekend the Tennessee Equality Project learned that Mr. Mark Foulks will lead the Murfreesboro Fire and Rescue Department.  We know that during the search process it was brought to the City's attention that there was evidence of anti-transgender harassment while Mr. Foulks was employed by the City of Knoxville.  Nevertheless, you offered him the job and it appears he has accepted it.

Perhaps Mr. Foulks has changed.  Time will tell.  But one thing that has definitely changed since the time that Mr. Foulks was employed by the City of Knoxville is the way the EEOC handles complaints of anti-transgender discrimination and harassment.  We think it important to point out these changes since your non-discrimination policies don't explicitly include gender identity.

The EEOC now views anti-transgender discrimination as sex discrimination, which is listed in your own policy as well as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  You may confirm this interpretation with the information at this link:  http://www.eeoc.gov/federal/otherprotections.cfm .

When individuals brought past charges against Mr. Foulks to your attention, they were trying to save you and employees of the City the pain of having to deal with the kind of incidents that occurred in Knoxville.  Now we are trying to save you and City employees the same pain by making sure you are duly informed about your obligations to any current and future transgender employees.  It would be prudent to make department heads and, indeed, all supervisors aware that gender identity discrimination is sex discrimination and, hence, prohibited. 

Thank you for your consideration of these issues and thank you for your service to the people of Murfreesboro.

Gratefully yours,

Chris Sanders

Executive Director

TEP responds to Morgan County religious freedom/anti-marriage equality resolution

Local 8 Now (WVLT) reports that the Morgan County Government has passed a resolution urging the General Assembly to protect the religious freedom of those opposed to marriage equality.  You can read the resolution here.  What follows is the response of the Tennessee Equality Project.

To the Honorable Don Edwards, Morgan County Executive:

Dear Mr. Edwards:

I greet you on behalf of the members of the Tennessee Equality Project throughout the state.  We take a keen interest in the work of local governments in Tennessee. Your County Commission's recent resolution calling on the Governor and the General Assembly to protect the religious liberty of those who oppose equal marriage rights for same-sex couples caught our attention.

You noted that many Christians hold literal beliefs about the Bible and that they take the Bible to condemn same-sex marriage.  As you are certainly aware, the Bible sanctions a variety of forms of marriage including polygamy and Scripture includes exhortations not to marry at all.  But I take your point to mean that you wish our state government to protect those Christians who believe that marriage can only be between one man and one woman at a time. Addressing the protection of those who have religious reservations about divorce and remarriage no doubt would have hindered passage of the resolution.

I can assure you that our organization supports the First Amendment rights of the citizens of this state.  No congregation or minister can be compelled to participate in a same-sex marriage.  The June 26 Supreme Court marriage decision only applies to state governments and their subdivisions such as county governments.  Private citizens and organizations such as churches may continue to hold, express, and teach whatever religious beliefs they like about marriage including their opposition to the Supreme Court's ruling. 

To our knowledge, no congregation or minister in the state has been forced to participate in a same-sex marriage and none have been taken to court over a refusal to participate in such a marriage.  If you are aware of any examples in Morgan County or anywhere in the state, please make us and the media aware of them.

If the threats to religious liberty you are referring to happen to include the practices of county clerks who wish they were not required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, our answer must be different altogether.  While elected officials may wish for the past, they must continue issuing marriage licenses on an equal basis when acting in their official capacity.  The Legislature will not be able to reverse the Supreme Court of the United States.

I remind you of that point because the resolution cites the Tenth Amendment, which concerns the rights of states.  But states may not do as they wish, and that is all for the good.  Our country fought the Civil War over this very point and sadly had to revisit the issue in the 1950s and 1960s as we confronted state-sanctioned segregation.  The Fourteenth Amendment limits the powers of states in the clearest possible language.  Here is some of the language in Section 1:  "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."  Elected officials take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, including the Fourteenth Amendment.

The best advice I can offer you is to look squarely at the situation and see that no one's religious liberties have been compromised.  People in Morgan County continue to have the right to disagree with the ruling.  If I could add to that a bit, I would urge you to get to know your gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors and fellow citizens.  Search your hearts and consider your duties to them, even as you continue to hold views that might differ from theirs.

I can sense the indignation in your community that led to the resolution.  I ask that you consider the great pain it has caused others, others who perhaps feel isolated and threatened as a result of it.  Such mutual understanding can lead to productive dialogue and it may make the situation more bearable for all.

I welcome the opportunity to speak further with you about these matters.

Gratefully yours,

Chris Sanders

Executive Director

Help us address the opposition's false sense of persecution

Tennessee is making national headlines again and not for reasons that make us proud.

Rep. Rick Womick has been trying to get county clerks to ignore the Supreme Court's marriage ruling.  And yesterday national LGBT outlets picked up an open letter to the LGBT community in The Tennessean written by the pastor of the Inglewood Baptist Church in which he calls on Christians to "come out" and engage in civil disobedience if necessary.

In the subject line of the post, I purposefully noted that there is a "false" sense of persecution.  In the Supreme Court's marriage ruling, our opponents actually lose nothing, as Michelle Bliss, our former public policy chair recently noted to me.  Congregations aren't forced to marry any couple.  And by licensing the marriages of same-sex couples, county clerks are not depriving different-sex couples of their rights. 

Nevertheless, the shrill cries of persecution continue.  Either these leaders really believe they are being persecuted because TEAdvocates.pngthey don't understand the way the law works or they know better but are trying to manipulate the public.  In any event, the LGBT community and our allies have a problem.

Misinformation, whether through manipulation or ignorance, leads to bad lawmaking and hinders the kind of acceptance our community needs in order to be safe and to thrive.

In my position, I do what I can to provide accurate information about the Supreme Court's ruling and its impact, but it is absolutely critical that you do your part as well.  When you see or hear phrases like "the LGBT community is going to sue churches" or "the ruling means clergy are going to have to marry everyone now," you need to be clear that ministers and congregations still have their First Amendment rights and that the ruling only applies to state governments and their subdivisions such as county governments. 

If you're receiving this email, this point is obvious to you.  You know what the ruling does and doesn't do.  But many of our neighbors don't.  And this misinformation is the source of many of the calls for "religious freedom" and making laws based on "sincerely held religious beliefs" that bleed over into areas of law where they don't belong. 

That's it.  That's all I'm asking you to do today--correct misinformation.  I'm not asking you to give or to volunteer in any formal role.  Calmly and rationally help your neighbors understand what's really at stake in the marriage ruling.  We can't stop Rep. Womick and the pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church from trying to whip people into a frenzy.  But we can talk to the same people whom they think of as their audience and provide a clearer understanding.

I believe in those conversations and I hope you do, too.

Gratefully yours,
Chris Sanders
Executive Director

Response to the Rev. Kevin Shrum's open letter to the LGBT community

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the comments of the Rev. Kevin Shrum, pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church, in The Tennessean

It's not about you:  The whole first section of Pastor Shrum's piece is founded on a basic error.  In it he argues that some Christians have capitulated to the Supreme Court's ruling and that now other Christians will be faced with the question of whether to "compromise."

Why is the pastor mistaken?  The pastor errs because the Supreme Court's decision binds the State of Tennessee, in other words, state government.  It doesn't have anything to do with the action of any faith community.  The June 26 ruling doesn't require any pastor or any congregation to sanction any marriage that runs contrary to their beliefs.  The pastor should carefully read the Supreme Court decision and the 14th Amendment.

A choice?  Of course, Pastor Shrum didn't resist the temptation of throwing in a quick "being gay is a preferred choice, sexual desire gone awry."  No serious person who studies the matter believes this; reference the American Psychological Association if you have doubts.  Pastor Shrum should consider being autobiographical and tell us how and when he chose his heterosexual attraction.  I think self-reflection actually could help him have a better dialogue with the LGBT community.TEFaith.png

Delusions of martyrdom:  In the next section, Pastor Shrum dramatically suggests that the "ruling made every Christian in America a potential law-breaker" and that Christians will face "persecution" and, moreover, that "civil disobedience may be the order of the day."  Since congregations are not forced to marry same-sex couples, how again will there be any law-breaking?  And what forms will this persecution take?  He gives us no hint, only scary fantasies.  So why would civil disobedience be necessary?  I don't think he can actually answer these questions because he hasn't really thought through his position.

Coming out when you've never been in:  In the final section, Pastor Shrum plays with the phrase "coming out" and urges Christians to do so. But what he fails to understand or remember is that people of faith have been coming out with their positions for years.  Some have been quite vocal for decades against the LGBT community, while others have been quite vocal in support.  To whom is he speaking?  

I think what he is trying to capture is the excitement that might attend an identity of being counter-cultural.  But such excitement is usually reserved for new reformist or revolutionary movements, not for more of the same old rhetoric we've heard for decades.  So while I can't go along with Pastor Shrum's counter-cultural charade, I can offer him some comfort in saying that it's not necessary.  First, he's not being persecuted.  Has his congregation been forced to host a same-sex wedding?  Has he been sued successfully because of his stance?  Of course, not.  Second, if he wishes to take on the excitement of the counter-cultural mantle, let him become a prophet within the Southern Baptist Convention and preach to his friends about LGBT youth homelessness that comes when families reject their children on religious grounds.  Let him decry the murders of transgender women.  Let him lead a call to repentance for Western Evangelicals and fundamentalists who at times have facilitated anti-LGBT laws in Africa.  Let him turn Southern Baptist congregations into safe spaces that will work to decrease LGBT suicide in this country. 

That would be a real coming out we could all celebrate.  And if may be so bold, I think it would please God as well.

Chris Sanders, M.Div.

Executive Director, Tennessee Equality Project


Donate Volunteer Find an Event