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The irony, noted by Sanders and others, is that while conservative lawmakers dismiss equal rights legislation for gays on grounds that no group should be singled out for special treatment, they have had no compunctions whatsoever about punitive bills that specifically target LGBT citizens.
The most notorious example is HB600 — the blanket nullification of municipal anti-discrimination laws crafted by state Rep. Glen Casada, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam last year, and lobbied for in secret by powerful Christian conservative interests. A direct one-stroke obliteration of Metro Nashville's LGBT workplace-protection ordinance, the law essentially gives employers free rein to fire or not hire individuals solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identification.
That was the first salvo in what has become a culture-war blitzkrieg. There is state Rep. Joey Hensley's HB 0229, the House version of Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield's "Don't Say Gay Bill," which bans any mention of sexuality other than the hetero-variety in K-8 sex education classes. There is HB 1153, which critics say codifies First Amendment protection for the very bullies who tormented Jacob Rogers and Phillip Parker. Most controversial — and LGBT advocates argue, most appalling — is HB 2279, which would make it a crime for a transgender person to use the restroom that best coincides with their gender identity.
"I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there — I don't care if he thinks he's a woman and tries on clothes with them in there — I'd just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga), told the Times Free Press in January.
The undisguised vehemence of Floyd's remarks triggered waves of viral outrage. But Campfield soon managed to eclipse him in media infamy. The Knoxville Republican told Sirius-XM radio host Michelangelo Signorile that the AIDS virus originated from "one guy screwing a monkey" and that HIV can't be transmitted through heterosexual intercourse — even though that accounts for roughly 95 percent of HIV transmissions worldwide.
Such rhetoric bothers Preston Crowder. In his spare time, the 17-year-old University School of Nashville student performs as a member of the PG-13 Players, an acting troupe funded by the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Planned Parenthood — a group currently fighting its own battles with Tennessee's ruling powers.
"We create skits about different issues that we feel strongly about, such as sexual orientation, body image, sexual decision making," Crowder says. "We develop skits about those issues and we polish them and we take those skits to different schools and to different events, and we perform them in order to provoke a discussion on an issue."
He says comments like the ones made by Floyd and Campfield only serve to promote hatred and intolerance.
"Comments like that, they really build a sort of hate, you know?" Crowder explains. "They sort of isolate people in a negative way, and that leads me to think that of course politicians play a major part in the forming of ideas that other people have. When they're sitting around trying to pass bills trying to protect bullies, it doesn't move society forward in being more accepting. If anything, it winds up hurting people."
As it turns out, science agrees with Crowder. A study published last year by Columbia University researcher Mark Hatzenbuehler found that in the state of Oregon, suicide rates among gay and straight teenagers alike are higher in politically conservative counties than their liberal counterparts, due in large part to a lack of school programs supporting LGBT youth.
Nearly 32,000 11th grade students were interviewed for the study, which created a social index measured across five criteria: the number of registered Democratic voters in the county; liberal ideologies; the prevalence of school-sponsored gay-straight alliances; the population of same-sex couples in the area; and anti-bullying policies at the school level. In Oregon counties that leaned more conservative, the overall teen suicide rate was a marked 9 percent higher. Worse, LGBT students were found to be roughly 20 percent more likely to opt for suicide in so-called "unsupportive environments."
The Hatzenbuehler study also found that gay teens are nearly five times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. It concluded by recommending more research, which might "ultimately facilitate the development of suicide-prevention programs that seek to reduce these disparities."
Exacerbating the problem, Ridgway says, is a lack of resources in rural areas that makes it harder for bullied gay teens to get the help they desperately need.
"If we compare [the Columbia] study to Tennessee, we find that there are more resources for school-age kids that are openly gay living in metropolitan areas than in rural areas," Ridgway says. "In rural areas there are less resources, and that's another risk factor."
The solution, Ridgway says, lies in access to programs such as Just Us, an LGBT and straight alliance group that meets 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays at the Oasis Center in the Watkins Park neighborhood. The 30 students who regularly attend hail from 14 different high schools across Nashville, representing a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Their overriding goals are to provide a safe, accepting school culture where students can learn without being harassed, and to work for social change toward those ends through outreach and direct action.
"They want an environment in which they can really get comfortable in their own skin and have some self-acceptance about who they are, and to know that they're OK, and that they're not some pariah on society," says Pamela Sheffer, program coordinator for Just Us. "They're human beings, and they have worth, and their life is valuable."
That's a message many teens in the Just Us program desperately need to hear. Sheffer recalls one member who shared with the group a familiar story. When the member came out to their family, the family responded by destroying the teen's personal belongings. Sheffer, who was moderating, decided to hold back and let her students do the talking. One by one, peers chimed in with support and reassurance — a stronger tonic than either a teacher or a YouTube video can provide.
"There's power in that peer connection," Sheffer says. "Them having the opportunity to be amongst themselves, to surround each other with the love that they need to just sort of know that it's going to be OK — that's what it's all about."
But Just Us is the only program of its kind in the state of Tennessee, according to Sheffer. What's more, she laments, out of 22 public high schools in the Metro Nashville school system, only three — Martin Luther King Magnet, Hume-Fogg Magnet and Cane Ridge High School — offer gay-straight alliances that promote understanding.
"We've got 22 schools with approximately 19,000 high school students," Sheffer says. "The average percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as LGBT is ... 5 percent. So let's say that 5 percent of 19,000 students identify as being LGBT. That works out to about 900 LGBT students.
"The average age of coming out is 13.4 [years of age], so most of these young people have come out or have known well before they have reached their high school years. We've got 30 young people that have engaged in our program. There's 900 [LGBT kids], and only 30 [in our program]."
In other words, even in the relatively liberal oasis of Davidson County, a majority of gay teens — already the most at-risk demographic for suicidal behavior — are underserved.
"It is one of the things that keeps me awake at night," Sheffer says. "Knowing I'm only one person, that I can only do so much in servicing Davidson County, it's a concern. That's why it's so important to have a school-based program available. If young people are spending a majority of their time in school, then it makes sense that schools should be the ones to offer that resource."
For this reason, Stacey Campfield's SB 0426, which would require parental consent for any public school student to participate in a gay-straight alliance (among other extracurricular clubs), is problematic. Since many of those students are discreetly seeking help they don't feel they can find at home, it's like asking a warden for permission to tunnel outside the prison grounds.
"I worry about whether LGBT kids will be getting the support that they need if they have to get their parents to sign off on something," a faculty adviser to Martin Luther King Magnet's gay-straight alliance tells the Scene. "A lot of the problem with closeted kids is that their parents are the ones that they're trying to get away from, so that they can become the people that they need to be. So by the time they're in high school, it seems like they should be able to not have any parental consent to attend a club meeting.
"I think what happens is that kids don't tell their parents they're going to a GSA if they're worried that they would think that it's negative. And if they were forced, then they'd probably wind up not going."
Shirit Pankowsky, the founder of MLK Magnet's gay-straight alliance, thinks Campfield's bill would devastate the membership of her organization and threaten the culture of acceptance they've built.
"There's a lot of students who are afraid of saying anything to their parents," the senior says. "I've had people tell me 'I can't come any more because my parents found out.' I've heard some horrifying stories based on the fact that students want to be in a GSA and their parents don't agree with that. That's a really scary thought that we wouldn't just have the freedom to be in a club if we wanted to."
When Pankowsky, 18, came out as bisexual last year, she says for the most part it was "smooth sailing." Friends and family were largely unsurprised, given her involvement with LGBT issues. (In addition to founding her school's gay-straight alliance, she is named as one of the plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to overturn HB600.)
"It was a little strange in that there were some people who didn't believe me," she says, laughing. "They said that I was just following a trend. There were some people who never really liked that. Being a person who is extremely picky when choosing my peers, and the people who I choose to spend my time with, it was very, very easy for me."
Not everything, however, has been so easy. Last year, Pankowsky was standing in an MLK hallway observing the Day of Silence — an event sponsored by the nationwide Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which asks students to refrain from speaking for the day to protest LGBT bullying. As if challenging the very premise of the day, a student came up to her, placed her in a chokehold, and slammed her against a row of lockers.
"The only thing that saved me was the late bell," Pankowsky recalls.
To put the encounter behind her, she says, she relied on her friends and MLK's gay-straight alliance. But she realizes that not all LGBT youth, like Jacob Rogers or Phillip Parker, are as lucky as she. If students expect anything to get better by itself in Tennessee's current cultural climate, Pankowsky says, they'll be waiting forever — or face the kind of frustration that drives some lonely, confused, isolated kids to unthinkable and irreversible extremes.
"I'm gonna sound like a bit of skeptic here," Pankowsky says. "But from my perspective, it doesn't just get better; you have to make it get better. I had to change everything. I had to rally up the school, rally up students. I got as many people on my side to ensure that it could get better not just for me but for others at my school. When you live in a town where people can't support you, you have to reach out to people elsewhere, so you can go home and find people to Skype or IM [instant message]. The 'It Gets Better' videos are nice, but there are so many people saying, 'I don't care that it gets better, I want it to get better now. I don't want to wait anymore.' I think that might be why there are so many suicides and so much pressure: All these kids think that they can just sit around and wait for something that will never come.
"You have to change something to get better. That's really all there is to it."UPDATE: This story originally stated that Brush Creek was west of Nashville, when in fact it is east of Nashville. We regret the error.
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