June 1 was the unofficial kickoff of the Summer of Love tour around Tennessee. And what a kickoff it was with a whirlwind trek through Southeast Tennessee!
Chattanooga: News has spread fast around the country that WRCB in Chattanooga has so far refused to air Freedom to Marry's ad in support of marriage equality. So since I was heading to the area any way, I popped in at the station hoping to speak to the general manager. He wasn't in, but I did get to speak to one of the leaders in the sales division and convey our thoughts on the importance of running the ad. It was a positive sign that someone from the station would talk to me on such short notice. We'll hope for ongoing discussions. The Chattanooga Times Free Press happened to contact me while I was on the way down and I discussed my hopes for the meeting and the embarrassment for Tennessee. I hope we can turn this situation around. Time will tell.
Cleveland: After leaving Chattanooga, the next stop was Cleveland where I paid for the park rental for our June 13 Summer of Love event. The process was easy and I enjoyed taking a look around town. You can find out more about the official first stop on the tour here.
Polk County: When I finished my business at Cleveland City Hall, I got back on the road and headed for Polk County. Shortly after crossing the border, I saw a good omen--a huge rainbow flag (two different kinds actually) flying proudly from a business called Ms. Be's Purple bus located at 256 River Heights Dr. in Ocoee. I talked to Belissa Levenea Russell, the owner, and presented her with a Tennessee Open For Business window cling. I bought a wind chime and braced myself for the school board meeting.
Back to the School Board: The background to the school board meeting is really sad. Two students of Copper Basin High School have taken their lives this year and both incidents are connected to bullying. Based on visits to other school boards around the state, I wasn't expecting much. But I was surprised and I have some measure of hope things can turn around.
Shortly after I arrived, I noticed several reporters and I met Angel, the mother of the young woman who took her life last month. I learned that she has contacted the Department of Justice and filed a suit. I met the school director before the meeting began and offered assistance. Paul Moisan, an activist living in Atlanta but originally from Cleveland, walked in and I got to talk to him after previously only corresponding by email. He has been staying up-to-date on every aspect of the situation in Polk County so it was great to have the chance to compare notes with him before and after the meeting.
I was pleased that the board allowed Paul to speak and more than the usual three minutes. Paul showed composure, presented good information, and asked good questions. Residents of the district later echoed some of Paul's questions so he was clearly striking a nerve. Then the school director rose to speak. I was worried I'd see a repeat of what I saw in Cheatham County in 2012--lots of defensiveness, but things took a different turn. He admitted there are problems and that the district didn't have all the answers. He presented parts of a plan to help turn things around including a new incident report form, incident reporting follow up procedures, new and clearer protocols, revised bullying policy, plans for discussions with outside groups, and establishment of a hope line. All of this will be sorted out by a committee that will include community input. These steps CAN work if the district follows through. A first meeting for the new committee is not set yet, so we'll all be looking for that. Here's Channel 9's story on the board meeting. It is going to be critical that the community stay involved to make sure problems aren't ignored and solutions have a chance to work.
June 1 didn't deliver definitive results, but I saw indications that this region of Tennessee can see progress with will and organization. I'm looking forward to coming back on June 13.
BuzzFeed is reporting that WRCB in Chattanooga is refusing to air a pro-marriage equality spot produced by Freedom to Marry. Read the story here. It's outrageous that people in this media market won't get to see the story of this doctor and soldier serving our country.
TAKE ACTION: Contact WRCB and urge them to air the ad.
*Contact them on Facebook at this link.
*Contact them on Twitter at this link.
*Call them at (423) 267-5412 .
Stand up for messages of equality!
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!
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 Blockmon, 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
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.
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 [email protected] . We would love to have your perspective.
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)
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 [email protected] .
For recent incidents of hateful rhetoric (not limited to hate crimes), go to the TEP's ongoing Tennessee Hate Report.
The news from the latest Vanderbilt poll is not good. Support for marriage equality is down compared to November 2014 in Tennessee. 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.
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!
Sherondia Sullivan was scheduled to speak at the Nashville Marriage PLUS Rally in April, but a work conflict prevented it.
We 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'
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 [email protected] . 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