With the passage of domestic partner benefits in Nashville Metro becoming the latest major accomplishment under its belt, the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) is not resting on its laurels but gearing up for a number of major pushes in activism. From organizing phone banks to support Chattanooga’s defense of its own domestic partner benefits at the ballot to laying a groundwork to get as many Tennessee couples as possible married on “Day One,” it’s shaping up to be a busy summer for TEP.

In June, TEP held elections for its Board, including the new slate of officers who will work with Executive Director Chris Sanders in setting priorities and directing the organization’s work for the next term.

New Chairman and President Jonathan Cole says, “It is important to me to make sure, as much as possible, that our board reflects the diversity of Tennessee. Each Grand Division is represented on it. Cole, as well as Treasurer Jeff Kirwan, live and work in Memphis, while David Glasgow, Vice President, and Secretary H. G. Stovall are Nashville residents. Knoxville is represented on the executive committee by at-large member Audrey Lee.

Cole observes, too, that the Board reflects old hats as well as some new faces. Returning board members, as well as long-term leadership from Sanders and others, provide stability and an institutional memory. “We’re very lucky to have Chris, who has been a board member, as well as president, and we want to continue to support him.” However, enthusiastic new leadership at all levels helps the organization maintain its energy and vision. We try to recruit as a Board to reflect the many faces and segments of our LGBT community. We particularly focus on developing new leaders at the local level. Most recently new steering committee chairs were recruited for Shelby county and the Tricities area.

One thing we won’t see with the new Board is a radical shift in priorities. “We’re going to continue pursuing state and local goals in line with previous activism,” Cole assures. “Dignity for All Students continues to be a priority. This bill adds protections that aren’t currently included, including sexuality and gender identity, and we want to make it clear what’s acceptable.”

Also at the state level, TEP has its eyes on marriage again. In the event the Sixth Circuit makes a ruling in any of its cases which brings equality to Tennessee for even a brief window, TEP is organizing statewide. Cole says, “We’re very aware of 6th Circuit decision possibilities, and we want to be ready on day one for same sex couples to go obtain licenses, during what will probably be a brief window. We’re recruiting couples, as well as officials and ministers to solemnize those marriages.” While a stay may ultimately halt the marriages, these marriages strengthen the case that lack of marriage equality harms people more than it could possibly “harm” the state.

At the local level, the TEP will continue its legislative work in behalf of benefits programs and other rights issues. Local school boards are also a major focus. “While the major districts have bullying protections, we don’t state wide, and a lot of rural kids especially aren’t protected.”

While TEP and organizations like it often hear complaints that the progress is slow and incomplete, Cole notes that this stimulates their agenda. “We elect representatives. When you can’t get Congress to do it you go to the local level. This is a trickle up effect, and it works. Our impact is more immediate at the local level, and these local laboratories for policy help normalize expectations about who deserves protection. It stimulates state and national progress. Politicians have to watch their constituents, and when they start realizing they’re being elected by districts that support what we’re working for, change happens. But you have to work at it constantly.”

With possible changes on the horizon concerning marriage and employment discrimination, TEP isn’t getting ready to celebrate victory. “We’re working on strategic planning. Housing and public accommodation laws, birth certificate laws, and the state hate crime statutes are all still areas of potential inequality. Transgender people particularly still face a lot of difficulty. There is still a lot to do, and TEP is strong at translating realistic and specific goals into tangible gains.”





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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