Ever since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, activists and analysts have warned against overconfidence in the outlook for the LGBT community’s steady progress toward equality. To too many, it seemed that the war was over, and with that came complacency.

While the election of Donald Trump has led to a wide-scale reevaluation of the state of LGBT rights in America, in Tennessee, we never had the luxury of letting down our guard. Our legislature has been among the most active in proposing anti-LGBT measures, in preventing local governments from instituting protections for citizens, and generally demeaning LGBT residents of their state.

Over the past few years, the legislature has advanced a large number of bills targeting LGBT people, from bathroom bills and a bill forcing the attorney general to defend discriminatory school districts to license to discriminate bills and the narrower counseling license to discriminate (which passed, after initially being defeated).

It is a testament to Tennessee’s activist and advocacy community that most of these bills have been defeated or delayed until they lack sponsorship. Many groups have contributed to this high rate of success—nationally, HRC has provided on-the-ground support, and locally groups like TTPC, the LGBT Chamber, and others have utilized their resources to oppose these measures. Locally and statewide, one group has been omnipresent in the fight to secure LGBT rights throughout the state: the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP).

In fact, way back in 2007, TEP worked with the Nashville LGBT Chamber for seven weeks in a successful campaign to restore Out & About Nashville to Kroger magazine racks in Middle Tennessee. Over the years they have risen to every kind of challenge, from providing LGBTQ-inclusive diversity training for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and the Memphis Police Department to driving local protections, like non-discrimination ordinances in Nashville, Knoxville, Knox County, Chattanooga, and Memphis.

TEP is actually two separate organizations: the TEP, which is dedicated to political activities like lobbying, and the TEP Foundation, an organization devoted to educational activities, such as instructing citizens about their rights and tracking information about potential anti-LGBT legislation. The organizations share one full-time employee, an executive director, Chris Sanders, and have a contract with Jenny Ford for lobbying and other services. The rest of the organizations’ work is undertaken by boards of directors and countless volunteer/citizen activists, and concerned community members.

It is impossible to overstate the amount of work this group has put into stemming the tide of anti-LGBT sentiment and legislation. In the last two years the two organizations have been pushed to the limit. To present only a partial picture, in 2017 the TEP Foundation tracked and analyzed more than 50 pieces of state legislation, in addition to countless local ordinances. In order to combat these, the organization presented Advocacy 101 sessions across the state for over 350 people, preparing volunteers to represent the needs of the community to lawmakers. Further, they created an online voter registration portal in partnership with Civic TN which has registered over 130 new voters since October.

In addition to this statewide work the TEP Foundation strengthened local community-building efforts. For instance, the TEP is now in the process of organizing a third annual Murfreesboro Pride Festival, and in 2017, it organized its first LGBT+ Health Care Conference in Knoxville. They provided media support for Voices for Trans Youth in their campaign to safeguard LGBTQ protections for Knox County Schools students and employees.

The TEP’s lobbying arm has likewise been working overtime the last few years. Some highlights in 2017 included successfully defeating the bathroom bill in the State Senate, while working on the local level to defeat measures such as Portland’s anti-drag ordinance and Hamblen County’s anti-marriage resolution.

And while 2018 is not even half over, this year has already seen TEP successfully lobby to defeat the Tennessee Natural Marriage Act, two anti-transgender bathroom bills, and the business license to discriminate bill. This was accomplished via a successful strategy of organizing grassroots advocacy weekly, whenever a discriminatory bill was on notice. The organization is also expanding into less urban areas, such as forming a TEP Hamblen County Committee in Morristown.

Given that there is no indication that legislative bodies in Tennessee are giving up their fight against LGBT equality, and in some ways seem to be gearing up for intensifying the fight, this presents a stark reality: in order to do justice to Tennessee’s LGBT citizens, the TEP organizations need significantly more resources to continue the fight.

Unlike many similar organizations, TEP accomplishes this work on a shoestring budget: the two organizations’ 2016 990s, the latest available online at Guidestar.com, indicate total gross receipts of just $128,598. Chris Sanders, the organizations' executive director, was paid only $32,596 (estimating incorrectly that he worked only 40 hours per week, this means the chief of the organization charged with securing LGBT rights in Tennessee ears a little less than $16/hr). 

On the other hand, in the same year, One Colorado had gross receipts of over $1.1 million, and Equality Texas reported over $1.2 million. One Colorado had two executive directors in 2016: Dave Montez was paid $71,934 before he left the organization, and Daniel Ramos earned $83,250 for the balance of the year. Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith was paid $101,207 ($48.66/hr), but the organization's payroll totalled $328,064. Both of these states’ organizations received significantly more financial support that TEP, but anti-LGBT legislative activity has been much more aggressive in Tennessee. 

TEP’s fundraising is essential and needs to intensify in order to merely maintain the current pace. TEP’s volunteer recruitment, and its deployment of grassroots efforts to influence lawmakers, needs to take greater priority in the organization’s mission.

While Tennessee’s LGBT community has never had the luxury of letting our guard down and thinking the fight was mostly over, we have taken something else for granted: that Chris Sanders and Jenny Ford, and the devoted group of Day-on-the-Hill-regulars, would continue to stand as sentinels against every assault.

They simply cannot continue to do so without more direct support and more resources. So, when 2019 arrives, and with it a new crop of bad legislation crafted by anti-LGBT politicians, will the TEP have the resources it needs to once again turn back the tide? Only we can answer that question.



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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