Advocates for LGBT rights are praying that Tennessee lawmakers’ professed dedication to the state’s economic condition will convince them to steer clear of discriminatory legislation. But so far, it hasn’t made much of a dent.
The Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce brought representatives from major businesses with local presences to the Capitol this week to talk about the economic impact of such legislation, speaking in the same room and about the same subject as they did one year ago. In the ensuing months, the state lawmakers have continued to push controversial social legislation, while the companies ostensibly opposed to it have continued to move to Tennessee or expand their presence here.
AllianceBernstein, the Wall Street firm that announced it was moving to Nashville and warned the legislature against passing discriminatory legislation, announced in January that the state was incentivizing them to expand further in Nashville. That was on the same day that the state Senate passed a bill codifying protections for taxpayer-funded adoption agencies that discriminate against same-sex couples. Postmates was another company to join the group threatening economic consequences if the state pursued such actions, but the tech company announced an expansion in Nashville just a few months later.
But now they really mean it, says LGBT Chamber CEO Joe Woolley.
“It’s not that they're not doing anything,” Woolley says. “This is a key issue. They take this very seriously and they are speaking out. They're trying to stop this issue before it gets really, really bad.”
Lawmakers don’t much seem to care, spurred on either by the state’s billowing economic engine or the lack of consequences to match those faced by North Carolina after it passed a restrictive bathroom bill.
“When you start trying to threaten people, regardless of who it is, all you're doing is driving a wedge in the process, and you don't make things better,” Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton said earlier this year. “If you want to effect change it’s better to come in — 'let’s talk through it and see what we can work on and not work on.' When you start making threats it makes it hard to work with people.”
Company officials, including those from AllianceBernstein, have been doing exactly that, though, meeting one-on-one with lawmakers in an attempt to persuade them about the ramifications of the bill. Woolley said he was “surprised” that Lee supported the adoption bill and a separate measure that would ban abortions as early as six weeks after conception, because the LGBT Chamber head knew what sort of pressure companies were applying on the governor.
This year, the legislature will debate bills that would penalize parents whose kids undergo gender-reassignment therapy and force students to play sports with kids based on their gender at birth.
But as Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Andrea Arnold said, no conventions or conferences have backed out of Nashville since Lee signed the adoption bill (though the group has fielded “many calls”).
“We really are playing with fire,” Woolley says. “Each state is seeing who can step in front of the bus before they get hit, almost playing chicken. … Tennessee will take that hit, and that's what we're all here fighting to stop. We plead with the governor and the legislature to not step in front of that bus.”