With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, what most activists see as the birth of the gay rights movement in the United States, mere months away, it looks as if Tennessee will be taking a step backwards when it comes to LGBT rights.
The current Tennessee State Legislature session is on the verge of passing three different bills that groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Tennessee Equality Project view as anti-LGBT and discriminatory.
The three bills that have already passed through one chamber of the state legislature are HB 563, which prohibits state and local governments from taking action against any businesses that have discriminatory policies. This effectively gives businesses the green light to put in places polices that would allow them to fire employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and would be protected from legal action.
HB 1152, would allow taxpayer funded adoption and foster care agencies to refuse services to families, namely same-sex couples, on the basis that they are a religious organization.
The final bill, HB 1151, seeks to redefine and expand the current definition in Tennessee Code for “indecent exposure” to include any situations that might happen in locker rooms, bathrooms or other public spaces. This is seen by many LGBT rights activists as a watered down “bathroom bill,” a bill that seeks to deny transgender individuals the ability to use the restroom of their gender identity which doesn’t match with the gender that is on their identification.
A “bathroom bill” was put to a vote back during the 2016 legislative session but was defeated after a backlash from businesses and civil rights groups, which would have cost the state $1.2 billion in Title IX funding.
With these three bills all on the verge of passing and a governor who is more than likely to sign them, LGBT activist groups have mobilized across the state to try and garner support.
A group of students from the University of Memphis held a rally in downtown Memphis near City Hall in hopes of bringing more awareness to the bills, due to the fact that most people who might be against the bill were not aware of the bills existence.
The Fight for Human Rights rally was organized by a group of students, Jojo Sigala and Emily Campbell, who are also part of the student organization Stonewall Tigers, the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at the University.
Though the turnout to the event was nowhere near on the scale of other rallies, such as the March for Our Lives or Women’s March, the organizers were still proud of what they accomplished.
Campbell said, “The people that did come up and talk to us were very engaged and supportive of our cause.” She went on to say “though I don’t think this will move the needle and keep the bills from passing, it does send a message that we are here and aren’t going to quietly accept this as the new norm.”
The organizers did their research on how to hopefully stop the bill and had pamphlets and flyers with information about representatives and committee members to call in the state legislature.
The Tennessee Equality Project, one of the major groups on the frontline of lobbying against anti-LGBT laws in Tennessee, helped provide some of this information. Going a step further and providing a script to read off if someone did choose to call their representative in protest of the bills.
This is not the first time that the TEP has had to mobilize quickly in an attempt to stop legislation often rushed through committees and put to a quick vote to hopefully be swept under the rug and out of the news cycle. All of these bills have put sponsored by Republican lawmakers, and with a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature, Tennessee Democrats find it difficult to properly fight back against these laws unless the public and local businesses join in the fight.
The 2016 “bathroom bill” was stopped due to overwhelming public outcry that was only exacerbated when the Tennessee Attorney General came out and said that the bill would cost the state $1.2 billion in federal funding. However a lesser known bill, HB 1140, which would allow counselors in the state to deny mental health services if those individuals violated a counselor’s personal religious beliefs, quickly passed through the legislature.
“If you don’t bring awareness to these discriminatory bills that are being considered, they will always get passed because the legislature will believe that since there hasn’t been any pushback, it’ll be fine to push it through. But in reality the people in Tennessee don’t even know the bill exists till it gets passed,” Keaton Gilbert, a senior biomedical engineering major said, one of the other U of M students in attendance.
Tennessee has always had a rough relationship with the LGBT community. The Volunteer State is currently the only state that has a law prohibiting the reassignment of one’s gender on their birth certificate.
When the city of Nashville passed an ordinance that would have required private businesses who were working with the city to not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the state legislature stepped in and swiftly passed HB 600, which prevented local municipalities from passing non-discriminatory bills that would go beyond state law. This nullified the Nashville ordinance due to the fact that there is no state wide non-discriminatory law that protects people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Another one of the University of Memphis students in attendance who is passionate about advocacy, Kayla Turner, a senior psychology major said “The hardest part of all of this is that I love living in Memphis, and I take pride in it, but it’s also a terrifying because at any time I could be fired because of who I am and who I love and there’s nothing that I could do about it. That’s why I’m out here today.”