Equality in an Election Year

A picture from the failed attempt to pass civil unions in Hawaii captures the problem for equality in 2010. 

It shows a woman with a poster that reads, “Oh, sorry—Did my civil rights step on the toes of your election year?”  When legislation designed to advance equality stalls or fails, there are always many reasons why.  This year the election looms large among them. 

Federal legislation like ENDA was already moving slowly before Republican Scott Brown won the election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s senate seat.  The few mainstream pundits who mention ENDA at all say that the prospects for passage in 2010 are slim in part because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is promising that Democrats won’t have to take controversial votes and also because there is no longer a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. 

The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which is getting a great deal of attention because of President Obama’s State of the Union address, is probably going to take a couple of years to accomplish, according to many reports.

Shifting to the state level, the specter of this year’s Tennessee legislative races overshadows everything.  Neither party on the whole has shown zeal for passing equality legislation.  Even our allies hesitate to run good legislation because of the effect they believe it will have on their caucus’ races around the state.  That caution is particularly strong this year for a couple of reasons. 

First, the margin of seats in the Tennessee House of Representatives between the Democrats and Republicans is razor thin.  The Republicans are trying to expand their majority and the Democrats are trying to get it back.  Second, so much is at stake in the 2010 legislative races.  Whichever party comes out on top this year will determine the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts for the next 10 years.  Read that last sentence fifty more times to get a taste of what your state representatives are obsessing about.

The implication for our community is gridlock.  Negative bills such as the adoption ban and the Don’t Say Gay bill probably won’t move this year, but positive legislation probably won’t advance either.  That’s why the Tennessee Equality Project is reluctantly holding off a year on a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination policy for state government employees.  We had hopes that it could be introduced this year so that we could begin building support, but it sadly turned out to be a no-go.

Whatever your style of activism—civil disobedience, public protest, electoral politics, or lobbying—you have to admit that it’s a tough sell to move positive legislation at the federal and state levels this year.   Our action at the federal and state levels is not futile, though.  We have to continue to beat the drum for equality or we’ll lose what little ground we have. 

You’d better believe the Tennessee Equality Project and other groups will be working for ENDA, the state hate crimes bill, an enhanced nondiscrimination policy for state government employees, and many other bills every chance we get.  But we do so in the face of the realization that we won’t cross many finish lines this year. 

The possibilities for advancing equality at the local level provide a stark contrast to the gridlock at the federal and state levels.  So while we have no choice but to continue to butt our heads against brick walls in Congress and Legislative Plaza, we have a chance to advance good legislation in our cities and counties. 

To some people, the local approach is outdated.  They’re tired of fighting city by city and state by state and they believe it’s a failed strategy.  But we can contrast such talk with what works. 

If you look closely at the work that is getting done as opposed to the talk at the surface level, equality in America’s cities is moving forward.  Cities across the country like Salt Lake City and Charlotte passed non-discrimination or partner benefits ordinances last year and more are working on similar measures this year.   

In a limited way, Tennessee shares in that trend.  Shelby County and Metro Nashville passed protections for their government employees last year.  Other local governments in Tennessee are well positioned to advance non-discrimination ordinances in 2010.  TEP will continue to press for federal and state protections, but we’re going to spend significantly more time in 2010 working on passing protections in local government.

What’s the justification?  First, there is always an obligation to advance protections where you can.  Ordinances at the county and city level in Tennessee won’t protect everyone, but they will cover large segments of our community.  At the February meeting of the Metro Human Relations Commission, we learned that at least one Metro employee has filed a sexual orientation discrimination complaint with human resources.  He or she would not have had recourse before the September ordinance passed. 

Second, passing ordinances at the local level increases support for equality at the state and federal level.  Think of it this way—why would a state legislator or a member of Congress take our demands for equality seriously if we can’t pass a piece of legislation at home?  Passing local protections helps make more of our state and federal lawmakers comfortable with legislation like ENDA or the state hate crimes bill. 

Third, activating people in our cities and counties gives activists experience and victories from which to build as we fight state and federal battles.

Equality advocates always have options.  They’re not always the options we want.  So while we continue to push for ENDA and other state and federal legislation, let’s not neglect our cities and counties.  We have a lot to gain by acting locally.

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