NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Advocates from East, West and Middle Tennessee gathered at Legislative Plaza Tuesday, March 13, for Tennessee Equality Project’s 8th Annual Advancing Equality Day on the Hill. Joined by Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, members of the two groups met with senators and representatives to express their concerns over many of the bills that were brought before committee throughout the day.

Many felt inspired their efforts as several of the morning’s appointments took a positive turn for the GLBT community.

Speaker of the House Beth Harwell commended those she met with for their purposeful and reasonable tones in speaking on the issues.

“You’re on the right track,” she said, particularly regarding comments on “Don’t Say Gay” (HB0229). “We don’t currently have sex education for grades K-8, so this bill would start sex education in [those grades]. That gives [the proponents] a little bit of a pause.”

Speaker Harwell also advised advocates to remain smart and strategic in addressing the issues. “It’s important that you’re down here, making your voices known,” she said. “I think doing it in a calm and deliberative fashion is the right way to go, so thank you for being here.”

Though as the morning continued, many in attendance began to wonder if the issues affecting the GLBT community were going to be heard or not.

During the House General Subcommittee of Health and Human Resources hearing, HB0187, the health care bill allowing gender changes on birth certificates, was held off until a future meeting. Meanwhile, even after receiving a letter from Mayor Karl Dean to overturn the ban on local nondiscrimination ordinances, the Senate State and Local Government Committee decided that SB2762 would be rolled over to next week’s session.

Tuesday’s most widely anticipated meeting, however, was the House Education Committee’s hearing on HB0229. During the hearing, Rep. Joey Hensley spoke of a new abstinence-based sex education bill that would be introduced during the Education Subcommittee meeting on Wednesday morning. The new bill (HB3621), drafted by Rep. Jim Gotto, would redo much of the current code and is likely to cover the very ban on teaching homosexuality that Hensley put on hold. Hensley plans to keep HB0229 off the docket until the end of the general session.

When asked about his newly proposed bill and its possible ties to “Don’t Say Gay”, Rep. Gotto said that he was against any legislation that would in any way support bullying. “At the same time,” he said, “I’m not going to oppose legislation that I feel like protects our young folks from things I feel like they should be protected from.”

Gotto then explained his belief in homosexuality as a choice as the largest reason for the barrier between himself and the GLBT community.

“I know you will disagree,” he said, “but I truly believe that being homosexual or not is truly a choice. I understand that some males are born more effeminate than other males and some females are born more masculine than other females. I think that’s where our basic disagreement is.”

Gotto added that he did not know if he could find common ground with the GLBT community regarding nondiscrimination policies and other pieces of legislation because he felt the GLBT agenda went beyond that.

“You want to say that homosexuality of any type is acceptable in society, and I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I basically feel like the Bible teaches against that, but it also teaches that I have to love everybody. I love every one of you in this room. At the same time, if I stand up and advocate that something is okay that is a sin, I can’t be held responsible for that.”

Even though great strides were not made at the Capitol, Advancing Equality Day was far from being considered a loss for members and allies of the community. Many statewide connections were made, and the event was still filled with much hope and inspiration for those present and unable to attend.

“As the mother of a son who’s gay, a daughter who’s straight, and a second son who’s straight, you matter so much,” Maryville PFLAG President Rebecca Lucas said, addressing the crowd at the Advancing Equality Rally before Tuesday’s hearings. “My gay son needs these beautiful gay men here today to stand up and show him what it’s like to be a gay man who is productive and partnered and in love and raising kids and working successfully in his dream job.”

Lucas continued to encourage Equality Day attendees throughout the day on the hill, thanking them for allowing her into their circle and for the change to voice her beliefs as a straight ally and loving parent.

“Thank you so much for what you do everyday,” she said. “When it is safe, when it is possible, when you can, please stand up and be out.” 

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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