Two weeks from now, something that was unthinkable just a few years ago in Nashville may actually come to pass: The Metro Council may vote to ban workplace discrimination against gay and lesbian city employees. To a small faction, this will seem a sign of the End Times. Next, well declare Nashville a nuclear-free zone, turn Baptist Hospital into the Peoples Clinic for Socialized Medicine, and march en masse to Centennial Park to sing The Internationale.
"As a representative of Metro government, I think it's an embarrassment that we don't already have this law to protect employees," says Megan Barry, the bill's sponsor, who was elected to an at-large council seat in 2007. "This is not cutting edge stuff. These protections have become, if anything, common and mainstream."
Yet in 2003, when then Metro Council member Chris Ferrell introduced a similar bill, Nashville went berserk. (Ferrell is now CEO of SouthComm, which owns the Nashville Scene.) Psychotic preachers staged protests outside the courthouse, decrying this "ploy to place government approval upon the monstrous sins of Hell-bound sodomites." Good times. The bill was defeated at a torturous council meeting, with the vice mayor at the time—the star-crossed Howard Gentry—casting the dramatic tie-breaking vote.
"It was ugly," says Gentry, who still agonizes over his dilemma. "That was probably one of the low points in our city's history."
What happened that night at the courthouse was shameful to many people. The venom from the anti-gay opposition was a little too reminiscent of ugly scenes from the civil rights era. It raised a bothersome question: Are we a city of bigots?
Six years later, though, supporters say they see signs that it's morning in Nashville. Changes in the council's roster, along with support from some unexpected corners, have the bill's chances looking remarkably strong. Couple this with January's successful campaign to beat back Eric Crafton's English Only initiative, supporters say, and we're transforming after all these years into a proud, progressive city.
"Who knew?" says Barry. With the bill coming up for final approval on Tuesday, Sept. 15, she seems confident that Nashville is ready to join the more than 170 cities and counties around the country that already have similar laws on the books.
"I don't know why this wouldn't pass," she says matter-of-factly, as if she were discussing a resolution that honors puppies. "I don't know why everyone wouldn't stand firm on this one."
To be sure, evangelicals are pitching fits this time too. The Tennessee chapters of the Rev. James Dobson's Family Action Council and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum are orchestrating an email campaign to bombard the council with glimpses of the horrors to come. A sample: The ordinance would force people to use courthouse rest rooms in the company of cross dressers, and it would require the city to pay for sex-change operations.
"It's unfortunate, but there's a segment of the population that hates us more than taxes," says Chris Sanders of GLBT advocacy group the Tennessee Equality Project. "This is just about hiring, firing and promotion, but according to our opponents, the apocalypse is going to turn on what Metro Council does."
That's no exaggeration of the evangelical point of view. In a call-to-arms email only last week, the Family Action Council of Tennessee warned, "This is a very dangerous path for the city to take."
"Let me be clear," wrote David Shelley, FACT's director of church and community relations, "Family Action of Tennessee does not 'hate homosexuals.' Our opposition to this bill is out of love and compassion for the homosexual community as well as the rest of Nashville. It is not 'loving' for government to approve of or protect a sexual lifestyle that is clearly unhealthy and a perversion of God's natural design for intimacy, marriage and procreation (Genesis 1, 19, Leviticus 18, 20, Romans 1, I Corinthians 6, I Timothy 1, etc.).
"While it may be 'politically correct' to adopt this type of ordinance in our modern culture," Shelley continued, "no civilization in human history has survived after legally approving of same-sex marriage." Actually, the pending ordinance has nothing to do with legalizing same-sex marriage. But let's not bog down in details.
Joining the evangelicals are several council members, who also see the Mark of the Beast among us. On the off chance that you don't mind risking God's wrath, they appeal to social-conservative reasoning as well. They make the usual claims that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice: Gays, therefore, have no right to complain.
Council member Jim Hodge, a Church of Christ deacon who represents the Tusculum area in District 30, gave that view at the last meeting. In the world according to Hodge, this isn't a question of civil rights. No law is necessary, he says, since gays can solve any problems they encounter simply by ceasing to be gay, the way a fat man gives up cheeseburgers.
"...I cannot support or endorse a lifestyle that is unhealthy," Hodge told the assembly. "We as a government make many suggestions and recommendations to folks to live a better lifestyle, whether it's menu labeling, whether it's exercising, whether it's recycling, because it's good for the individual or it's good for the community.
"We ask folks to leave their cigarettes outside. As a guy who's smoked for 20 years, I know how hard that it is to do. But I had to make a choice and I did and it was a hard choice. It was hard to do. Some of us have been on diets like Councilman Forkum and me last year so our joints would work. It's not easy to make a lifestyle change but it can be done.
"When I look at the information on this lifestyle, it's not something that we should endorse. Individuals here are eight times more likely to have to seek professional mental health treatment for all manner of reasons. Those in a committed relationship, four times more likely to have multiple partners. That's not stable. Significantly higher rate of STDs, about 60 percent, and a shorter lifespan of about 14 years. I would think that we as a government should be encouraging our folks to make better lifestyle choices than this. I will vote no."
When Hodge finished, District 7 council member Erik Cole felt compelled to tweet an apology: "To all of my GLBT friends in Nashville...I'm sorry for what you just had to hear about your 'lifestyle.' "
Then there's Antioch council member Duane Dominy, who represents District 28. One of his constituents, Bill Newsome, was so outraged by a lunch meeting with the council member that he contacted the Scene. Dominy didn't return the Scene's calls seeking comment about this meeting. But according to Newsome, Dominy told him he opposed the bill because sexual orientation "could be construed in a court of law to mean bestiality and pedophilia."
"I'm sitting there and I'm thinking, 'Am I really hearing this?' " Newsome says. "I really could not believe what I was hearing. I thought, 'Here's a guy who's on the city council and he's saying this.'
"I said, 'Hang on a second. You're putting bestiality and pedophilia in the same category as this?' Our meeting ended civilly and we shook hands but, as important as this issue is to me, I probably should have cleaned his clock. I was overwhelmed with this sense of anger inside."
The good news is that this time, oddly enough, most people are giving these outlandish arguments the attention they deserve—which is to say, none at all. To a clear majority of the council, it's obvious the city should grant basic protection against job discrimination to all its workers, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. More than 50 organizations, including eight churches, have announced their support. Metro schools passed an identical policy just last fall with little controversy.
Opponents make a point of noting that no gay city worker has lodged an official discrimination complaint with the Metro Human Relations Commission. But what does that prove? Why would anyone complain when there's no law to protect them? Anonymously, one former Metro department director who is gay posted an entry on the Tennessee Equality Project's blog, saying he felt harassed at work by a co-worker and eventually left his job for one with an employer with a policy against gay discrimination.
"LGBT employees should feel as protected at work as any of their co-workers," he wrote. "No one should have to wonder whether his or her co-workers or supervisor might treat employees differently based on factors such as sexual orientation or gender identity. This is a legitimate issue which affects real people in adverse ways."
Some council members who disagree are too embarrassed to say so publicly. Instead, they have resorted to various parliamentary dodges to delay and obfuscate. Council members Sam Coleman and Phil Claiborne went so far as to sponsor a second bill to muddy the waters and dilute the original bill's support. These maneuvers have failed so far.
Opponents found it even harder to put up a fight when District 20 council member Buddy Baker signed onto the bill. A grizzled retired firefighter, conservative and devout Catholic, Baker seemed an unlikely supporter of the ordinance—until he told the City Paper's Nate Rau that the matter literally hit close to home. His son, Don, was gay and died with AIDS.
"You know how people act around gays sometimes and how they mistreat them and all," Baker tells the Scene. "I told my story because I wanted to open some eyes."
Perhaps they're opening. When the council voted 23-16 for the ordinance on second reading two weeks ago, the news was so ho-hum it was relegated to the middle of a short Tennessean roundup of that evening's public business.
Personally, Barry isn't even getting much email on the subject. "Maybe it's because I'm already condemned," she laughs.
Nashville went to pieces over this six years ago. Why is it so different now? Maybe we had to build up to this moment. Since then, there's been a citywide conversation of sorts, in public and private places—pretty much wherever Howard Gentry happens to be.
Like the guest on a nightmarishly long Oprah show, the former vice mayor says he's been the unfortunate focal point for this soul-searching. People still stop him all over town to talk about why he voted down the ordinance then.
"I'm still dealing with this," he sighs. Asked whether he regrets his vote, Gentry says, "I regret the position I was in." He says he still isn't convinced the law is necessary.
But "since that day," he says, "I've probably spoken to hundreds of people on both sides. I took every call, every email, every insult. I took it all, and I tried to have a conversation about it. At the end of the day, I wanted people on both sides to know that I am a person with a heart who's totally against discrimination."
In 2003, Mayor Bill Purcell refused to take a position at first and later made the ridiculous claim that the legislation was unconstitutional. This time, Mayor Karl Dean helped make it politically acceptable to support gay rights by announcing he's for the ordinance.
He hasn't needed to do much else. This council probably would have passed this even without his help. It's much more progressive now, with new members including Barry, Jerry Maynard, Jason Holleman, Sean McGuire, Lonnell Matthews and Kristine LaLonde.
Thanks in part to term limits, a few of the bill's most fervid opponents have been returned to private life. Among them is Carolyn Baldwin Tucker, who passionately opposed it in 2003. When it was defeated, she called it "a victory for Nashville, a victory for the children, a victory for the Lord."
Believe it or not, there are new council members who are blissfully ignorant of this whole sad little chapter in city history. When Barry was looking for co-sponsors in the council, she says two newcomers were surprised by her bill. "They both looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding? This doesn't already exist?' "
Which is another reason this once divisive, controversial and bitterly contested law may pass easily. To these council members, it's not even an issue.
"You know what?" Barry says. "If we yawn and go on, it's a good thing because it shows we're finally at a place where this kind of stuff is not controversial. It's just about doing what's right. Nashville may be finally catching up to the rest of the world."
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