Legislature bullies UT-K into submission, plans additional anti-LGBT attacks

If you want a lesson in power, just look at how the Legislature beat the University of Tennessee-Knoxville without even being in session.  UT-K is removing its suggested practices concerning gender-neutral pronouns (which were never a policy) from its website after legislative pressure.  And as we've said many times, the Legislature is going to look at unnecessary bills to try to allow businesses, clergy, and county clerks to opt out of serving the LGBT community.  The Knoxville News Sentinel's Tom Humphrey nails the power/ideology issue with his discussion of the real political correctness in Tennessee.

Loud, but not as big as they think:  The loudest element in our socially conservative state is demanding that any advance for LGBT equality be met with resistance and reversal, if possible.

But despite the fact the state is socially conservative, we don't believe it's the policy focus for the majority of our fellow citizens.  So we're going to resist.  We're going to undertake an unprecedented effort to identify fairness-leaning voters in key conservative districts and secondarily to persuade some.  This is not about candidates.  It's about changing the number of people supporting our issues in places no one expects and it's about changing the perception of those issues.  

POWER Teams:  POWER Team training sessions, as promised, begin in September around the state this month.  You'll get a discussion of the plan and some training on how you can help execute it.  Please, join us for one of these sessions.  If you don't see yours listed yet, sign up at the volunteer form here for the city nearest you and we'll schedule a city near you soon!

Nashville:  September 21

Murfreesboro:  September 22

Memphis:  September 23

Knoxville:  September 24

As always you can support our legislative efforts to fight back at the link.

Family Action attacks Megan Barry

This morning I got word that Family Action of Tennessee had started an attack on Megan Barry's campaign for mayor.  You can read it here

Their argument:  The piece says that Barry wants to "exclude those whose Orthodox Christian beliefs inform their public lives."  And as evidence, Family Action cites the 2011 Metro contractor non-discrimination ordinance, of which Barry was a sponsor.  They further bolster their point by including a clip of former Councilman Phil Claiborne who just basically says that orthodox believers of many religions oppose LGBT people.

Disclosures:  Before I get into the refutation, let's have all the disclosures.  TEP PAC endorsed Megan Barry for Mayor.  I personally voted for her on the first day of early voting.  And I don't speak for her or her campaign.  There.  That's all on the table.

Here's another disclosure.  I have an M.Div. and studied the history of the Church for years.  I completed all the coursework for a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought at Vanderbilt, even took some of my qualifying exams in the area, but I never could settle on a final dissertation area so I pursued other things.  But I did pretty darned well in my coursework and my exams. 

So I know a thing or two about "Orthodox Christian beliefs."  And since I was involved in the Metro contractor ordinance, I know a few things about that, too. 

Doctrines of sex and gender:  First, beliefs about sexuality and gender, while debated and important, have not in the long sweep of Christian history been the defining test of orthodoxy.  What Family Action is asking people to buy is that there are orthodox beliefs about sex and gender on par with the Nicene Creed.  And there's just no evidence for that.  In fact, the evidence points to variability of belief and practice among Christians who otherwise held in common certain core beliefs like the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, etc.

Why the contractor ordinance proves nothing:  Second, Family Action's argument that by supporting the contractor ordinance, Barry excludes people with Orthodox Christian beliefs is blatantly false.  People can believe whatever they want, but to contract with Metro government, the bill said that they had to affirm that they would not use tax dollars to discriminate against their employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  And guess what, lots of people were OK with that, including people with Orthodox Christian beliefs.  Some congregations even endorsed the bill!

What looks like orthodoxy is actually heresy:  Really to take the point further, what Family Action is asking people to believe is that there is an Orthodox Christian doctrine that supervisors should be able to fire LGBT people or not hire them in the first place.  This is what the old theologians and bishops used to call an "innovation," and they weren't using that word in a positive light.  In other words, it's a new doctrine, or I would add a heresy.  Not only that, but it's bad public policy. 

Nashville needs neither this kind of heresy nor bad public policy. 



TAKE ACTION: Contact legislative committees to defend UT against Family Action attacks

BackgroundWe recently told you in this blog post about all the horrible media distortions of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's efforts to encourage the campus to learn about gender neutral pronouns to make the community more welcoming for transgender and gender-non-conforming people.  Now Family Action of Tennessee is urging its members to contact state legislators to get them to "neuter" UT's program.  This offensive, violent image that likens transgender people to pets is how the organization is trying to get the Legislature to interfere in UT's programming. 

FIGHT BACK:  Use this petition to generate emails to the State Senate Education Committee and to the State House Education Administration and Planning Committee so that they will have accurate information and so that they know you want UT to make its own decisions about programming to make transgender and gender non-conforming people welcome!  You can find the petition at this link

College students, faculty asked to learn new words, use them in conversation: Media explodes

The media coverage of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's request that their community learn gender neutral pronouns and consider using them in actual conversations has been a fiasco.

There were reports of "ditching" he and she.  A Fox News piece went so far as to say, "Lots of folks in Big Orange Country are turning blood red."  We'll bracket the question of whether Fox was trying to manufacture the very outrage they were reporting as fact.  Unfortunately, Tennessee media outlets played along with the tone set by Fox.  A Facebook post by WKRN that was later changed indicated that UT-K had lost its mind, while WSMV's 10:00 p.m. report on Friday night treated the matter as a joke.

University officials facing massive misunderstanding in the media have clarified again and again that gender neutral pronouns are NOT a policy. 

Guess what!  Colleges have been known to roll out educational programs to make their community life better.  It should not be surprising at all that an institution of higher learning should ask members of its community to learn new words and use them.  That used to be called education.  At a time when Mx as a gender neutral alternative to Ms, Mr., and Mrs is entering dictionaries, it seems as if any university that prepares its community for a changing world is doing its job.  So we'll have to say "Well done" to the folks at UT-K!

But the general context of higher education is only one piece that should have taken most of the bluster out of the unfortunate coverage of this development.  The other piece that didn't really emerge in the media coverage is the emergency situation of transgender murders in this country

Basically, media outlets were sensationalizing, mocking, and dismissing a practice that is designed to make transgender and gender non-conforming people safer.  There was a lost opportunity for media outlets to connect what is going on at UT-K to the lives of transgender people and the dangers they face. 

Why did it occur to no one to ask, "What if thousands of people learned an easy way to affirm transgender people and making them safer in the face of an often hostile world?" 

The upside of the sensationalized coverage is two-fold.  First, lots of people around the country who had never heard of gender neutral pronouns have now been exposed to them.  Second, lots of people around the country learned that the University of Tennessee-Knoxville is trying to make a difference for transgender and gender non-conforming people. 

Let's hope that's the direction the discussion keeps heading!

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 [email protected]

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.

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