Any oily lobbyist with a checkbook can waltz into any legislative office at any time of the day or night and receive a full hearing. But when gays and lesbians tried to lobby the legislature last week, they didn't exactly receive a gracious reception.
In a series of audio reports on Liberadio's website, co-host Mary Mancini painted a picture of democracy in action—Tennessee-style.
Sen. Diane Black, the Republican caucus chairwoman, originally agreed to meet with her constituents, then canceled. So they were left to chase her around Legislative Plaza.
"She canceled the meeting and said there was really no reason to meet because there was nothing new to hear and there were no common stances with anything we had to discuss," Anne Miller told Mancini. "I've never done this before. I was just excited to come up and exercise democracy. I feel really put off by her that she's not interested in hearing about issues. Children, families are pretty important where I live. I'm not sure what her motives are in not wanting to speak to us."
A group later managed to get Black's ear for five minutes. As Maria Brewer recounts, Black told her constituents, "I really don't think there's a reason to meet because I know what y'all are going to say."
Black then explained her support for banning adoptions by unmarried couples. "She said her concern for the children is that they're going to be put in a stressful environment where they're going to have questions about their sexuality and a confusing situation," Brewer says. "...She didn't want to deal with the bigger picture. She wanted to deal with the things that she felt like she could pick apart."
Four constituents met with Sen. Paul Stanley, a sponsor of the gay adoption ban.
"It was basically the same meeting that we had last year when we talked about the very same issue," one participant told Mancini. "He's made up his mind how he wants to vote on this. He has a very definite viewpoint on this, and I think he will continue to bring it up until it passes. He makes it very clear. The basis of this is his evangelical Christian upbringing, his tradition, his belief system. The heterosexual male-female married couple is the ideal situation for children. He's made that very clear."
But it's a position that would sentence more children to foster care. One man said he and his partner are ready to adopt, but the bill would kill that opportunity.
"We have finished all the background checks, all the paperwork, all the planning. We're on the list now. We're waiting for the birth mother to choose us from a list of other candidates. We've been approved by every state agency. We had to have an FBI background check. We passed all those things with flying colors. If ours isn't started by July 1 (the effective date for Stanley's bill if passed), we wouldn't be able to adopt in Tennessee."
Rep. Stacey Campfield, another champion of family values—the Republican version—was also a no-show for his appointment. He rescheduled, but blew off that meeting too.
Of the many objectionable pieces of legislation awaiting action, the GLBT lobbyists targeted two bills in particular for defeat this session—the ban on gay adoptions and Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill, under which any mention of homosexuality is forbidden in public schools.
"The most important thing is to bring your loved ones with you as you talk to your legislators," Tennessee Equality Project president Chris Sanders told the roughly 100 people who met prior to the lobbying effort. "Take the love you have for the people in your arms and let it transform this awful political environment we have."
Unfortunately, love isn't held in high esteem on Capitol Hill.
Yet the group did find one bill gays can support. It would add gender identity to the definition of a hate crime. At least two transgendered women have been killed in Tennessee in the recent past.
The bill, however, has absolutely no chance of passing.
"No one from New York or California is coming to rescue us," Sanders told his troops. "We are the army that has been sent to do this work."
Sanders recognizes the political difficulties of this situation, but says the mere presence of gay people among their elected representatives is a positive. Except for a couple of guys with chartreuse Mohawks, everyone in the group looked, um, normal. And that's a big surprise to many lawmakers.
"It does position us down the road for positive legislation," Sanders says. "When we first started this, a lot of lawmakers said, 'Hell, we don't have any gay people in our district.' I'm serious. We don't hear that as much anymore."
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