MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Standing in a steady drizzle as dark clouds rolled over the Mississippi, supporters of the Tennessee Equality Project rallied outside of the federal courthouse here Dec. 9. All across the state, similar rallies took place to petition President Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in federal contracting jobs.
Anne Gullick, the Tennessee Equality Project's Shelby County chairperson, addressed a semicircle of thirty equality advocates saying, "This is about equality in the workplace." Gullick, standing beneath the American flag, said, "I am a straight woman. This is my cause." She pointed out that "the women's rights movement and the LGBTQ rights movement" have much in common: "the oppressors are the same."
The next speaker, Michelle Bliss, discussed why the TEP is seeking an executive order from the President: "Our state legislature has cut us off at the knees." She went on to explain, "Nashville has passed a law that says no municipality can extend protections beyond their own employees."
In October, by a 9-4 vote, the City Council of Memphis approved a nondiscrimination ordinance that extended protections to city workers based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the City of Memphis is powerless to extend similar protections to other workers due to state law.
According to Bliss, "The only way to overcome this state law is through federal action." She added, "Workers should be judged by what they do 9 to 5" and not by who they love.
Chai Feldblum, a Commissioner at the EEOC and the lead attorney in drafting the Americans with Disabilities Act, agrees. Feldblum met with a small group of local equality advocates days before the rally in the basement of Evergreen Presbyterian Church. "Ultimately what is needed," Feldblum said, "is a federal law." "But," she said, "until we get that, what we need is an executive order."
Feldblum outlined her approach, saying, "You need three things to create social change: law, policy and practice and social norms." An executive order from President Obama would represent a crucial change in policy and advance the cause of equality. Feldblum confided, "I have zero doubt the President will issue this executive order." She paused, then added, "The question is when...we have to be smart and strategic about it."
The final speaker at the rally was Glenn Ramsey. Ramsey, an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis, encouraged the crowd to "extend the struggle" and "build on the recent victory [in the Memphis City Council]." Ramsey said they should secure "the real right to work... for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender" people across Tennessee.
While his partner, Jim Maynard, held an umbrella over his head, Ramsey put the purpose of the rally into perspective, saying, "We know, as America's working people, that policies like these [right to work] and longstanding employment discrimination against LGBT people, only serve the aims of America's corporate elite to divide and conquer our national workforce."
Last week the Supreme Court agreed to hear two separate cases regarding marriage equality. Should the justices rule to curtail discrimination, the Republican wedge issue of LGBTQ equality will be severely blunted. Considering the GOP's reliance on wedge issues, especially in the South, to divide the working class against itself, a Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage discrimination unconstitutional would represent a strategic defeat to the right wing.
While distant thunder rumbled, Ramsey asked, "Who else defeated the massive amounts of wealth invested by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and the American Heritage Foundation?" Ramsey shouted to the applauding crowd, "We the American people did, and we can do it again! Si se puede!"
Photo: Glenn Ramsey and Jim Maynard. James Raines/PW