Allies powering through the pressure

Allies--there's a lot of national discussion of this topic in LGBT and progressive circles.  If you search the, in my opinion, odd word "allyship," there are all kinds of critiques and so on.  Overall, I think the LGBT community does a pretty good job of celebrating allies.  We can always do better, of course.

To celebrate the work of allies in no way diminishes the work of LGBT people.  It doesn't say that what they go through equals the discrimination our community faces.  But in some cases, people become allies because they have faced their own struggles with classism, sexism, racism, etc. that may go well beyond some of the struggles that more privileged members of the LGBT community face.

Regardless, allies face pressures and it's easy to forget.  Here's an example.  The Nashville Scene today has a wonderful profile of Metro Councilman Lonnell Matthews who represents the first district and is running for an at-large seat on the Council this year.  But the piece is looking beyond this election to the future and rightly sees Councilman Matthews as a rising star.  I was struck by this section:

Matthews was also a vocal supporter of the legislation last year that allowed same-sex partners of Metro employees to receive benefits. At a recent fundraiser, asked for an example of his willingness to lead, he says that "several" supportive colleagues who wanted him to run for an at-large seat discouraged him from signing onto the bill as a sponsor. After he went ahead anyway, one even asked him to remove his name.

But he says that conversation was exactly why he had to do it. When it came to a vote, he stood on the council floor and delivered a forceful response to an effort to derail the bill.

Sometimes when I'm working on a local ordinance, I hear about the pressure allies are facing, sometimes I don't.  But it's important to remember that even in our larger cities, allies sometimes face pressure not to support us on policy matters.  I'm glad that Councilman Matthews and other allies powered through and supported the partner benefits ordinance.  I hope and actually believe that they'll find it's not a liability.  But since I'm not the one running for office, it's harder for me to assess that.  People will say things to a candidate in private that they won't say to me.

So our community's government relations approach must not take allies for granted.  It is our job to help create conditions that make it easier for them to work through the objections and support equality.  And let's continue to celebrate the ones who fight alongside us!

TEP Rutherford County Committee responds to WKRN report misgendering trans woman

Guest post

The following is communication sent by Michael Finch, Brandon Thomas, and Brendon Holloway of the TEP Rutherford County Committee to WKRN regarding a recent story in which a transgender woman was misgendered and demeaned:

To Larry Flowers and the WKRN News Team:

We, The Tennessee Equality Project in Rutherford County, are writing in reference to the recent News 2 story on Devonta RUCO.pngBlockmon, the transgender woman arrested on prostitution charges. We were disappointed to see that, although the article at one point acknowledged that Ms. Blockmon lives as a woman, the incorrect pronouns were used throughout the televised story and in the written article.

The Associated Press Stylebook has this to say about referring to transgender people in the news:

Transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

While we may disagree on whether Ms. Blockmon’s transgender status was necessary to report, or whether it only further served to sensationalize the story and contribute to the stigma against transgender women of color, it is clear that Ms. Blockmon lives publicly as a woman. The pronouns “she” and “her” should have been used, if News 2 wanted to follow the guidelines put forth not just by GLBT advocacy groups like GLAAD and HRC, but by the Associated Press as well.

The lives of transgender women of color are often tragically short – experts estimate that transgender people have a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered, and the statistic increases to 1 in 8 when looking only at transgender women of color. Also, in states like Tennessee where an individual can be fired for their transgender status, transgender women are often forced to turn to avenues like prostitution in order to survive.

We at TEP don’t expect News 2 to singlehandedly solve these problems, but misgendering Ms. Blockmon simply adds further insult onto the trauma of being arrested. We would love to see News 2 take the lead on following AP Stylebook guidelines instead, knowing that other news outlets often look to News 2 for guidance.

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or seek further comment on the matter.


TEP Rutherford County

A closer look at bullying and suicide at Copper Basin High in Polk County

This morning an ally alerted the Tennessee Equality Project to this Chattanooga Times Free Press story that broke yesterday about a Copper Basin High School student taking her life in connection to the bullying problem at the Polk County school.  The same paper covered another student taking his life earlier in the year, a case that may have also been connected to bullying.  In the first case, there was an investigation in which the findings were to be turned over to the Polk County Sheriff.  In the second case, the school is admitting there is a problem. 

What we've done:  The TEP SAFE (Schools Are For Everyone) Tennessee program has been in touch with an assistant principal at Copper Basin High.  We left a message with some resources and a request to discuss the matter.  I hope we'll hear back from the school.SAFEimageDecember.png

What do we know about Polk County Schools and bullying leading up to these two incidents?  Not much, but there is some data reported to the Tennessee Department of Education.  In the 2014 bullying compliance report, there were 37 reported cases of bullying in the district (not limited to Copper Basin High School) and 20 confirmed.  There were zero pending or unresolved cases at the end of the year, according to the report.  In the 2013 report, there were 23 reported cases, 20 confirmed, and zero pending at the end of the year.  The pending section of the report was left blank, so I am assuming the number is zero.  We can say that either the numbers rose over the last year or that the school system did a better job of reporting incidents.  The district says it serves 2800 students.

The Positives:  Here's what we can say on the positive side.  The district reports its numbers to the State.  Some districts report zero cases of bullying, which no one should find credible.  Second, based on media reports previously cited, there have been efforts to provide anti-bullying training to school personnel.  Third, the school leaders are admitting there is a problem at Copper Basin High School.  Having worked in situations in which a district would NOT admit a problem, such as Cheatham County in 2012, it's a constructive posture.

But it's looking as if the problem is not only with the amount of bullying that takes place or even the kinds of bullying that take place.  It appears that this most recent bullying case went unresolved far too long, having been reported more than once

Reaching out:  We are hopeful that the school system will conduct a thorough investigation, as it says it is doing.  Bullying reports need to be addressed promptly.  We will continue to try to be in dialogue with the school system.  If you live in Polk County, please, contact us at .  We would love to have your perspective.

Rise in Tennessee hate crimes related to sexual orientation and gender identity

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has released its annual Hate Crime Report.  You can find the pdf at this link.  As a whole, bias-motivated crime is down in Tennessee from 2013 to 2014 by 2.6%.  But hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity were up 14.1%.

In part the rise can be explained by the TBI helpfully adding "Gender Non-conforming" as a category this year.  Here is the breakdown:

Gay 13 (number of incidents affecting this population)

Lesbian 4

Bisexual 2

Heterosexual 3

Transgender 1

Gender Non-conforming 9

Gays and Lesbians 16


The Tennessee Equality Project applauds the TBI for adding the gender non-conforming category so that we can better understand the patterns of violence against our community in Tennessee.  It is obvious that much work remains to be done to improve the climate of acceptance in our state. 

Getting help:  If you are the victim of a hate crime, get to safety and seek medical attention if necessary.  Then report the incident to local law enforcement.  If you find your case is not being taken seriously, please contact us at .

For recent incidents of hateful rhetoric (not limited to hate crimes), go to the TEP's ongoing Tennessee Hate Report.

Support for marriage equality declines in latest Vanderbilt poll

The news from the latest Vanderbilt poll is not good.  Support for marriage equality is down compared to November 2014 in decline.pngTennessee.  You can find the full poll results here.  Questions 13, 14, and 15 are relevant for the work of advancing equality in Tennessee.  While it may be true that support is rising nationwide, we seem to be losing support as the Supreme Court decision approaches.  Fortunately the Supreme Court doesn't rely on polls.

16% strongly support marriage equality.  10% somewhat support marriage equality.  14% are indifferent.  52% strongly oppose marriage equality.  In November the numbers respectively were 15%, 7%, and 47%. 

In question 14 on full marriage rights, civil unions, or nothing, respondents broke down as follows:  27% for marriage, 22% for civil unions, and 48% for no legal recognition.  In November the numbers were 32%, 25%, and 39%.  A very disturbing trend considering the November numbers were so good.

Question 15 asked about wedding vendor refusal legislation or a mild form of RFRA/Turn the Gays Away-style bills.  57% said businesses should be allowed to refuse services for same-sex couples.  38% said they should be required to provide services. 

While the Supreme Court may not rely on polls, we have to live with our neighbors who don't support us...YET.  We have to win acceptance so that our community can be safer and thrive. 

Tennessee Equality Project's Summer of Love tour around the state will help us reach smaller towns in Tennessee where acceptance is still low.  Click here to fuel the tour

HBO's Bessie: Beautiful, complicated story with Tennessee ties

I leave it to others to determine whether HBO's Bessie got the history right.  Slate's Laura Bradley thinks the film did pretty well in that department.  Film is art, after all, and in this case art about the great blues singer Bessie Smith.

Dee Rees, originally of Nashville and known for her pathbreaking film Pariah, does an incredible job evoking Chattanooga's Bessie Smith in a compressed two hours.  We see the haunting struggles and the moments of triumph, big and small, that help us think about possibilities for Black LGBT life in the early 20th-century South.

Let's stop and consider that for a moment.  How often do we get to see a film by an African-American lesbian from Tennessee about a bisexual African-American woman from Tennessee presented by one of the leading cable channels?  Not often enough.  So the film's debut is an extremely important moment.

As well as presenting the life, loves, and career of Bessie Smith, the film manages to give us many of the complexities of racism that continue to plague us today.  The paper bag test for skin color comes up a couple of times.  We witness a Klan attack in the South and condescension in the North.  One of Bessie's best lines occurs at a New York party when she says, and I'm paraphrasing:  "In the South, they don't mind how close you get as long as you don't get too big.  In the North, they don't mind how big you get as long as you don't get too close." 

Again, it's just remarkable the ways in which Dee Rees packs all these elements effortlessly into two hours. Of course, I couldn't fail to mention the outstanding performances by Queen Latifah and Michael Kenneth Williams.

I hope everyone gets to see Bessie!

Visible (being): Guest post by Sherondia Sullivan

Sherondia Sullivan was scheduled to speak at the Nashville Marriage PLUS Rally in April, but a work conflict prevented it.

SherondiaSullivan.jpgWe are pleased to present her remarks on the Freedom to Be Visible here to inspire YOU to become more visible!  TEP is grateful to her for sharing her story.

My name is Sherondia Sullivan and for a long time I was different. I mean really different. I was not visible to myself or to those around me. When I was 26 I came out. I started to notice that it wasn't just my color or gender but my willingness to see who I really am. I identify as bisexual. It's made me a happier person. To know that I can marry a man and feel right but if I want to marry the woman I love that we would be denied. I want to be visible to marry whomever I choose. I read a quote that said: You Don't Fit In Because You Where Born To STAND OUT!'Emonie Whitley'


Tennessee Hate Report

Starting this month we will track hate incidents and rhetoric in Tennessee on this page.  As the Supreme Court decision in the marriage equality cases nears, we expect to see more.  If we miss something, email us at .  You can counter hate with a contribution that funds the Summer of Love tour here. The growing list of stories of concern appears after the flip.

Read more

TEP releases local government advocacy agenda for next four years



Local Government Advocacy Agenda 2015- 2019


Introduction:  The Tennessee Equality Project’s previous local government advocacy agenda was a guiding force in our work between 2007 and 2014.  It influenced TEP PAC’s candidate endorsement process and our lobbying of local governments, thus helping to shape the discussion of non-discrimination and partner benefits ordinances around the state.  Achieving those successes, seeing other pressing needs, and acknowledging the important elections this year in Memphis, Knoxville, Nashville, and other cities make it clear that the time has come to announce a bold new advocacy agenda for the coming years.


Policy and advocacy objectives of necessity exist at the crossroads of what a community needs and what is possible to advance.  The goals presented are not exhaustive, but they are among those that we consider attainable through the cooperative effort of citizens and local governments in Tennessee.


In this spirit, the Tennessee Equality Project offers for the public’s consideration these elements of our new advocacy agenda for cities and counties throughout the state.  As more local governments  include the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity in their ordinances, we see an opportunity to make sure that these cities serve other basic needs of their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender inhabitants.  We invite all people of good will in Tennessee to consider the following:


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 .


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 .   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 .  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 .



An open letter to Matt Moore: Stop aiding state-sanctioned discrimination

Dear Mr. Moore,

You came to our attention when the Family Action Council began posting about your April 23 discussion of faith and sexuality. 

Though I won't agree with you, I think you should be free to offer your message anywhere you want.  I think it is destructive within the Church, but your rights to freedom of speech and religion are not in question.  Do not imagine or use language that you are being persecuted because you're a Christian.  You're not.  Your rights are not being taken away.  Your voice is in NO danger of being silenced. 

So let's look at what you did by participating in the April 23 event and probably several others around the country.  You are colluding with an organization that lobbies the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee for discriminatory LAWS and against LAWS that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

If you believe that God has more in store for LGBT people than heterosexuality or living lives according to the gender they were assigned at birth, then why not just try to persuade people of that?  Why must you enable the use of state power in that enterprise? 

Is it that your message is not powerful enough?  Is it that the Holy Spirit is not allowing your teaching to bear fruit?  Is state power necessary to fill in the gap of your less than persuasive teaching?  Does God bless the discriminatory laws in place and use divine power to thwart the advance of equal rights in states like Tennessee?

In other words, what is your theology of the state and your theology of God's providential involvement in how legislation is passed or defeated?

I can tell you that we're fighting like Hell in Tennessee and it's a long, slow fight.  If God is telling you to use the power of the state against us, please say it because I like to know what I'm up against. 

Your connection with organizations that lobby against civil equality and for civil inequality is pernicious.  Let me give you an example from the very night you were offering your teachings.  A lesbian couple on the news talked about being denied housing in Nashville.  And there is no legal remedy for them in Tennessee, even though legal remedies have been proposed in our State Legislature.  Does God use prejudice in the world to give LGBT people an inducement to stop being LGBT?  Come clean with your real theology. 

If that's not an accurate characterization of your beliefs, then I fully expect you to admonish your friends at Family Action and let them know that God doesn't need the help of discrimination to make LGBT people as you would like us to be. 

Let's see how many people you could persuade to stop being LGBT without the sanction of legal discrimination and social shunning that results in statistics of 40% of homeless youth being LGBT

Is your faith in your message strong enough to stand without the prop of state-sanctioned discrimination?  Your performance tonight makes me wonder.


Chris Sanders

Executive Director

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