When the mayor struck, nobody was looking. A week ago Tuesday, at the Metro Council’s regular meeting, Mayor Bill Purcell presented three nominees for confirmation to the city’s Human Relations Commission (HRC). One was a gay engineer. Another was a lesbian attorney. The third was a state education official, her sexual orientation not at all important to this story.
Purcell was asking that the trio be appointed to the 17-member board that oversees the HRC, which is responsible for investigating claims of discrimination, sponsoring programs about diversity and otherwise slogging through the great national debate about how we’re all supposed to get along. Surprisingly, all three passed with nary a single objection. But, then, the gay and lesbian appointees weren’t wearing scarlet letters.
Only last April, amid great hue and cry, the Metro Council defeated the measure that would have protected gay and lesbian city workers from discrimination. As stink bombs were exploding left and right in the Metro Courthouse, Mayor Bill Purcell had hidden quietly under his desk. Ultimately, the anti-discrimination measure went up in smoke. Gay and lesbian activists fumed, and many blamed Purcell for the bill’s demise.
But as the histrionics were at full pitch, Purcell had offered up an alternate solution that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time. His legal director released an opinion stating that the Human Relations Commission already had the power to investigate local claims of discrimination against gays and lesbians. With the council’s approval of Purcell’s nominees, it’s this solution that Purcell appears to be acting on. Meanwhile, the fact that Metro Council members offered so little objectionor were just asleephas shocked everyone. One senior staffer for Mayor Bill Purcell says the administration is very surprised that someone in the council didn’t raise a ruckus about the appointments.
“It certainly is interesting that nobody noticed us,” says Mark Lopez, a gay activist and DuPont engineer who was one of the nominees. What was also surprising is that Metro Council member Carolyn Baldwin Tucker, the most vocal opponent of the anti-discrimination bill, rose during a brief discussion of the candidates to say she was delighted by the mayor’s nominees. As it turns out, this was because Tucker is a colleague of Connie Smith, the nominee who is executive director of accountability in the state Department of Education.
For what it’s worth, Smith says she’s supportive of protecting the rights of gays and lesbians. She tells the Scene that she believes “in human rights for all kinds of people.” As far as the mayor’s notion that the HRC can investigate claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation, she says, “If that’s the mayor’s direction, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do that.”
The third member the council confirmed is Maria Salas, a Nashville attorney and lesbian. “I’m not sure that the gay and lesbian community understood previously how much they could do through the Human Relations Commission, but because of the opinion from the Metro Legal Department, we do have the authority to investigate complaints against gays and lesbians,” Salas says. Assuming that’s true, I’m excited about moving that forward.”
The new members probably couldn’t come at a better time for the commission, which is undergoing an ambitious process of self-examination. This week, the board will be presented a set of “strategic directives” that are the result of afternoon retreats, hired consultants, box lunch meetings and lots of discussion. If the thought of spending time in windowless rooms in search of a mission statement sounds like the very definition of hell, don’t worry: HRC members are pros at this stuff.
Which is, actually, as it should be. Members of the HRC do a lot of this community’s dirty work. According to the legal boilerplate that provided for its creation, its official job is to “protect and promote the personal dignity of all people by protecting and promoting their safety, health, security, peace and general welfare.” What that means, basically, is that it’s charged with navigating the sometimes ugly intersections of race, gender, religion, national origin and ethnicity. As one former mayor once said, if the commission members can’t get alongand there have been plenty of times when they haven’tthe city probably won’t either. Thus, what the HRC does matters.
“It was started at a time of immense racial strife,” recalls Fred Cloud, who went to work as an HRC staffer not long after its creation in 1965 and then served as its executive director from 1970 to 1990. During that time the HRC primarily promoted issues related to fair housing and employment for African Americans. But in 1990, former Mayor Bill Boner decided the commission was unnecessary and pulled the plug on its funding, and it died.
In 1992, however, a black Metro police officer named Reginald Miller was driving an unmarked police car on assignment when he was dragged from his vehicle and roughed up by five white cops. Coming on the heels of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the incident prompted then-Mayor Phil Bredesen to appoint a study commission under the direction of local attorney Jim Neal. Its conclusion: that the city didn’t need a civilian police review board. The decision pleased police officers and the mayor himself, who didn’t think it was smart to give amateur Nashville residents the power to make punitive decisions about officers of the law. But a number of othersminority group associations, peace groups, religious activists and liberals who like talking about these thingsdisagreed. If the police department had overwhelming power to oversee the lives of the citizenry, why shouldn’t the citizenry have some power to oversee the actions of the overseers?
A wide-ranging mix of Nashvillians soon banded together. They came from the NAACP, the Tennessee Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice, the Nashville PEACE Association, the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship and the ACLU. The group’s hard-core members had originally wanted a “human rights” organization that could subpoena witnesses and levy fines, but that soon went out the window when more conservative voices, primarily a delegation from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, weighed in. Ultimately, Bredesen bought into the conservative version and allocated $120,000 to fund it. Initially, a council member who wanted to hire three new emergency medical technicians succeeded in convincing his colleagues to use that $120,000 allocation for his pet project. But Bredesen found the bucks elsewhere. In 1994, the HRC was back in business.
Literally hundreds of hours went into both the formation of this second installment of the Human Relations Commission and the first several years of its existence. It was a gestation period marked by compromise, temper tantrums, racial outbursts and firings. In one of its most outrageous moments, Bredesen dumped board member Bruce Barry (now a Scene contributor) because of Barry’s virulent attacks on the mayor in the now-defunct weekly newspaper In Review. One critical point of contention was Bredesen’s appointment of a lesbian, Kathleen Malloy, to the group. Some Council members objected, but Bredesen stuck with her, and she survived.
“The early years were like the ring of fire,” says Sue Fort White, a board member since 1994. “There were so many disparate voices. We all really cared about diversity and human rights, but it was just really hard.”
In addition to voices clamoring for sexual tolerance and racial diversity, Bredesen had also appointed conservative preachers such as Steve Flatt and Bill Sherman to the group. The board also included liberal Rabbi Ken Kanter and business-oriented men like Tom Seigenthaler and George Yowell. It was Bredesen who, during a period of incredible infighting, declared, “If the commission can get along, then the city can get along.”
And so, it’s this group that now must figure out how to approach the issue of discrimination against gays and lesbians in Nashville and the real or perceived bias they feel. Now may be as good a time as any for the HRC.
The organization is without an executive director and is looking for an interim one. Its chairman, Nashville attorney Lucinda Smith, has only been at the helm for about half a year. As the city becomes increasingly Hispanic and home to thousands of other immigrants, the focus of the HRC is invariably changing. To their credit, board members seem willing and able to go along with a larger mission.
Board members say the HRC will play an obvious role in helping the local gay and lesbian community. “Discrimination based upon sexual orientation is something that this city is going to have to deal with,” says Hershell Warren, a board member who is director of public policy and government affairs at Meharry Medical College. “The commission can be the forum for the city to bring these issues to the table, to discuss them, to bring out all points of view, to get people to understand how it exists.”
Warren says that the widespread belief that the city’s black community opposes anti-discrimination efforts for gays and lesbians is an “unfair” characterization. “Even for the Latin community, a lot of it comes down to religious orientation,” he says. “I think the black community also understands discrimination. And in my opinion, I would say that the majority of the African American community would understand how discrimination in any form affects everyone.”
As it’s constituted, the HRC currently has very little teeth. While Purcell’s lawyers have opined that the HRC has the “authority to investigate complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation by private employers in their employment practices and private businesses in matters related to housing,” the truth is also that it’s unclear how much, if any, power it has to punish offenders. What it does have the authority to do is to hold hearings and “compel the attendance of witnesses.” That, in and of itself, has a certain potency to shame people into behaving well.
“I think if there were a complaint filed about any kind of discrimination, and there were a hearing, and findings were made, I don’t think any respectable employer would want that kind of publicity,” says new board member Salas.
This Thursday, the HRC will once again meet to take up the issues in which it is involved. A draft of “four strategic directives” must be approved. They range from how to “educate the community about discrimination and advocate for positive change” to how to “seek, collect and compile information about real and perceived discrimination in Metro.” No doubt there will be disagreement, discussion and, eventually, compromise.
If it sounds painful, it probably is. Just keep in mind that they’re doing it so you don’t have to.
If you really want somebody to know something, you could just tell them.
I doubt she'd choke on yours.
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Bill, I agree. But you're messing with Betsy's MO.