Fight for your rights

The Tennessee Equality Project’s seventh annual Advancing Equality Day on the Hill featured appearances from two women relatively new to the world of political activism. Their unlikely turns in the spotlight have now further inspired Tennesseans to take up the organization's chief causes.

Carol Ann Stutte was on a visit to Nashville last September with partner Laura Stutte when their home was burned to the ground in an alleged hate crime. They returned to find the word "queers" had been spray painted on the side of their garage. The couple's struggle continues six months later: their insurance company has so far failed to reimburse them for the damage, and they've recently filed a lawsuit against the next-door neighbor they believe set the fire.

Lisa Howe, former Belmont women's soccer coach, was fired last December just days after informing her team that her same-sex partner was expecting their first child. Her abrupt dismissal drew national attention and led the university to amend their non-discrimination policy last month.

Both women shared their deeply personal stories at the event's morning meeting hosted by Rymer Gallery. Led by TEP Chairman Jonathan Cole, the meeting served to educate participants about their important role in shaping the political landscape. For the rest of the event, participants met with politicians to discuss legislation related to equality issues.

Encouraged by the turnout from the LGBT community and their allies, longtime activists say the time is now to spread the word about equality.

"We've been here from the beginning, and we want to stand up and make our voices heard," said Marisa Richmond, president of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. "Of course we would like to pass pro-equality legislation, but with the way the government is now, we want to stop anti-equality legislation from moving forward as well."

For those who might feel intimidated by reaching out to their representatives, Richmond encourages them to press forward so that progress can be made on both the state and local levels.

"(My) experiences have been mostly good," she said. "There are some legislators who don't want to hear your message, but most are polite and are at least willing to listen. If we identify someone that is hostile, then we work to get those individuals out of office."

Bills of special interest during this session include one that would impede the progress of Nashville's Contract Accountability Non-Discrimination Ordinance.

Proposed by Rep. Glen Casada of Williamson County, The Equal Access to Local Government Contracts and Services Act offers that employment standards should define the following as protected classes: race, creed, color, religion, sex, age and national origin. Though it also indicates that other types of discrimination will be recognized in accordance with state law, sexual orientation and gender identity have been omitted from the bill.

Casada's proposed legislation is a response to the ordinance introduced last December by Nashville Metro Councilmen Jamie Hollin and Mike Jameson. Their bill would require contractors to agree not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It goes for a third and final reading on March 15.

Another piece of proposed legislation would require photo identification for voters, a bill that could create problems for transgender voters, as well as the elderly and indigent. By joining forces for this event, participants work to ensure that such discrimination is prevented.

"We have a great crowd from all over the state that have come to join us," Sanders said. "This is the most conservative legislature ever, but I think these people are going to change some hearts and minds today. It's a combination of numbers, personal stories and the alliances we're making."

While Advancing Equality Day on the Hill is a one-day event, the quest for political equality remains a constant challenge.

"Every day can be advancing equality on the Hill," Sanders said. "They can call or write their legislators at any time, and the (Tennessee government) website makes it easy to be in contact with them. The bill statuses are changing all the time, so it's important to keep communicating."


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