If you’ve watched the Tennessee Legislature this year and have wondered where all the discriminatory bills are coming from, three new sources of data help shed light on the problem. Since 2005 the GLBT community in Tennessee has faced a marriage discrimination amendment, attacks on our adoption and foster care rights, efforts to curtail gay-straight alliances in public schools, difficulty passing a bill allowing persons to change the sex designation on their birth certificates, and most recently an attempt to remove discussion of sexual orientation from grades K-8 in our public schools. We have new information that helps confirm many of our hunches about the problem.

A couple of weeks ago, an MTSU poll was released showing that 66 percent of people in the state still oppose same-sex marriage. As the summary of the poll points out, this is a “figure that has held fairly constant for the last five years.” “Strong evangelicals” oppose marriage equality by about 91 percent. The poll used a five-point scale to identify people on the evangelical spectrum with questions about belief in biblical literalism and being born again. 

About a week before the MTSU poll came out, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published some national data on religion called the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The study examined the religious affiliation of 35,000 Americans with particular attention to the ways in which religious loyalties shift. In other words, the survey looked at patterns of joining, leaving, and changing membership in religious groups. 

The Pew data include a state-by-state breakdown that reveals 51 percent of Tennesseans consider themselves part of the “Evangelical Protestant” tradition. The national average is 26 percent. The fact that our state includes a significantly higher percentage of evangelicals and the fact that evangelicals on the whole are the most opposed to same-sex marriage should give us pause as we consider our strategies for legislative victories. 

If evangelicalism represents the majority in Tennessee, why would lawmakers even bother with the so-called pro-family agenda? Isn’t it self-evident? Two factors are at work in motivating the acceleration of discriminatory legislation. The first is a fear that the advances in GLBT rights occurring in other states will reach Tennessee. When Rep. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) spoke to the House K-12 subcommittee in support of his bill removing discussion of sexual orientation from grades K-8 in Tennessee public schools, he mentioned the religious beliefs of parents in the state and educational developments in California and other states. 

Lobbying organizations such as the Tennessee Eagle Forum and the Family Action Council of Tennessee are linked to a network of groups fighting GLBT equality. They monitor state legislation around the country and develop strategies, just as statewide GLBT rights groups do the same. That is why Mississippi is currently debating a bill similar to the one in Tennessee that would prohibit unmarried co-habiting couples from adopting children. 

The second reason for an increase in discriminatory legislation is the recognition that the GLBT community in Tennessee is becoming more visible and more active politically. Thanks to a Williams Institute analysis of U.S. Census data for Tennessee that came out in January, we have numbers to validate the trend. The report notes that there were 10,189 same-sex couples in the state, but by 2005 the number had grown to 13,570—a 33 percent increase! The analysis suggests that the “increase likely reflects same-sex couples’ growing willingness to disclose their partnerships on government surveys.” Davidson County had the second highest number of same-sex couples coming in at 1659 behind Shelby County with 1821. The study further extrapolates that there were more than 148,868 gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons in Tennessee in 2005. Data on transgender persons is not part of the study.

Given the three factors documented in these reports—the strong link between evangelicalism and opposition to GLBT rights, the strength of evangelicalism in Tennessee, and the growth of Tennessee’s GLBT community—it appears likely that more legislative clashes are inevitable for the next decade. If we ever hope to get out of the business of just beating negative legislation and to the point of advancing positive legislation, we will have to develop strategies that take into account the evangelical factor. 

One way to do so is to remember that many members of the GLBT community in Tennessee come from and continue to be part of evangelical congregations. We already have thousands of connections. Significant educational and outreach efforts would be worthwhile. Telling the stories of those trying to live with integrity in the two communities is a compelling way forward. A second way to appeal to legislators and to voters from the evangelical tradition is to use the universal language of finance. We must show the cost of discrimination. One example that comes to mind is the proposed adoption ban. We believe that even those who don’t support our adoption rights will think twice about passing a bill that would cost the state over $4 million per year at a time when we are experiencing a budget crunch. 

The challenge ahead is daunting, but it is not insurmountable if we are creative in thinking through points of contact with those who have opposed our rights. A deeper engagement with the demographics shaping Tennessee politics will suggest ways to deepen the conversation and make new allies.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

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