Coming out is still risky in Tennessee

Jonathan Cole knows many stories of discrimination, but he can’t share all of them. For many workers in Tennessee, reporting a case of discrimination based on sexual orientation would seriously risk their personal safety. Cole, the chair and president of the Tennessee Equality Project, says, “This is especially the case in police and fire departments where homophobia could be very detrimental to personal safety.”

One case Cole can talk about is that of Virginia Awkward, an openly lesbian officer in the Memphis Police Department. After being featured on the TLC’s program Police Women of Memphis in 2010, Awkward has routinely found “anti-gay religious pamphlets left on the windshield of her patrol car.”

The Tennessee Equality Project exists to “promote equality and to serve as advocates for change.” When the TEP is not “actively pursuing measures that would provide protection for the GLBT community at both the state and local levels” their energy and resources are devoted to “fighting any legislation in the State of Tennessee that would endanger the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens.”

Given President Obama’s public support for gay marriage, and the AFL-CIO’s recent statements supporting marriage equality, many people outside of the LGBT community think homophobia is largely a thing of the past and what little remains is insensitive, but not vitriolic.

In the last year alone, two Tennessee teens have been driven to commit suicides, “after years of anti-gay bullying,” says Jonathan Cole. In Cheatham County, 18-year-old Jacob Rogers, an openly gay high school student, took his life. Less than two months later, Phillip Parker committed suicide after years of constant anti-gay bullying. He was 14.

Sadly, these two suicides are not isolated instances of the cruelty of children: they are the effect of the anti-gay culture that pervades many Tennessee schools.

Jonathan Cole says, “A high school journalism teacher was targeted for removal from his position” for no other reason than the fact that he “allowed the yearbook to run a positive portrayal of a gay student.”  Then in Haywood County, “a principal told a high school assembly that gays and lesbians were going to hell.” Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that when students of Sequoyah High School in Monroe County “tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance they couldn’t find a single faculty member to sponsor them,” according to Cole.

However, anti-gay culture is not limited to Tennessee schools. Tennessee legislators are obsessively homophobic. More than once in 2012, they have introduced bills designed to reduce members of the LGBT community to second-class citizens.

In January, Rep. Richard Floyd, the Republican representing Chattanooga, sponsored HB 2279. Also known as the “Police the Potty” bill, 2279 would have made it a crime for members of the transgender community to use a public restroom that was not the same sex as the sex designated on their driver’s license.

A few months later, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, created what would eventually be known as SB 49, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The original language of the bill stated that it would be a crime for educators to “provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”

Using a variety of very effective tactics the Tennessee Equality Project defeated both of these bills before they even came to a vote.

However, Tennessee still has many miles to go before those who fight for equality can get any sleep. Local attorney Ann Gullick points out that in Tennessee, “the gender one is assigned at birth is [legally] unalterable.” Gullick, who is also chair of the Shelby County TEP, says that Tennessee is “the only state in the union that by statute you cannot change your birth certificate.”

Considering that, “when you get your license you have to present your birth certificate” the ramifications of not appearing to be the sex listed on your state identification are many and serious. “What do you think happens when you show up to vote,” Gullick wonders.

Pausing for a moment, Gullick flatly says, “The greatest fear a transgender woman has is a routine traffic stop.” Any transgender person stopped by the police is very likely to get arrested if asked for identification. After a physical exam performed at the jail, transgender women are then placed in the male general population. By the time they are released, transgender women have often suffered many injuries and indignities.

Last week, in an inspiring display of solidarity with his transgender brothers and sisters, Jonathan Cole immediately and flatly refused to consider dropping the word transgender from an antidiscrimination proposal.

When asked what the future is for the TEP, Cole was cautiously optimistic, saying, “The level of support in the South is shifting.” He illustrated his point saying, “When Tennessee passed its anti-equality bill in 2006 the bill passed by 81 percent.” Later, when an identical bill was passed in North Carolina it did so by “61-3 percent in 2012.” While definite losses for the LGBT community, Cole quickly points out that these two bills “represent a 20 point shift in the region.”

Given the Republican domination of state politics in Tennessee, the TEP continues to take the fight local. It is setting up county committees to help establish non-discriminatory civic practices in small communities across the state. “Then” Cole hopes, “we can go to our state and ask why our civil rights laws don’t reflect the current practice.”

Photo: The Tennessee Equality Project taking part in a Pride Parade.


James Raines
James Raines

The late James Raines was a life-long union worker, a union organizer with the Communications Workers of America, and a proud member of CWA's Media Guild. Writing articles for People's World from 2011 through 2014, Raines covered the Occupy movement in Memphis, demands for LGBT rights in Tennessee, the struggles of the Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, and the protests for justice in Ferguson, Missouri.