TEP recaps past year, plans ahead for 2010 and beyond

Members of the Tennessee Quality Project met May 1 to review a year filled with both successes and setbacks, and to set an agenda for 2010 and beyond.

The group, which lobbies for GLBT-friendly legislation at the Tennessee State Capitol, holds workshops for businesses and other groups, and travels the state to rally support for its agenda, has had a tough financial year like most other entities, but is still pressing forward on many fronts, said Chris Sanders, outgoing board chair.

“What always concerns me is that people put a lot of energy toward things that are happening in other states, things like Proposition 8 in California,” Sanders said. “That’s important, but not more than focusing on electing a good congressional delegation fro Tennessee. We need to start caring about our own state, because no one else is going to take that responsibility.”

As a measure of the group’s growing political clout, two Davidson County candidates visited the gathering: Vic Lineweaver, who is seeking to retain his job as Juvenile Court Clerk and faces 10 challengers in a May 4 Democratic primary; and Jeff Yarbro, who is looking to knock out longtime state Sen. Doug Henry in the Democratic primary, then take the District 21 seat in November.

“Watching this group organize and seeing what you did with the Metro nondiscrimination ordinance really showed what can happen when people make politics real and personal,” Yarbro said, referring to TEP’s efforts on that legislation, which extended Metro’s discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity categories.

The group also recognized Bill Weems and Linda Brunton, who have agreed to spearhead a ‘straight equality outreach team,’ the better to put TEP’s message in front of the boarder heterosexual community.

“I can remember the early 1960s, and the civil rights movement,” Weems said. “I didn’t really do much of anything, and I don’t want to be that way again. I think that gay rights can advance quicker if there are more friend willing to stand up; it’s time for straights to come out of the closet, too.”

TEP, which runs on a July 1 – June 30 fiscal year, generated around $20,000 in come through donations, memberships, corporate sponsors and events since last summer, and so far has spent around $22,000, primary on its lobbying efforts. Even though it’ slightly in the red the organization has had a good year, and with some fundraising pushes should be well positioned to continue and even expand its efforts throughout 2010 and beyond, said Wes Aull, treasurer.
“We have held strong as an organization, and I believe we can pull back into the black,” Aull said.

Lobbyist Jenny Ford recapped her efforts and those of many other TEP members during a contentious pair of years at the state Capitol, building, nothing that because the Tennessee General Assembly has a two-year session, a bill can go away one year only to rise unexpectedly — and quickly — during the second half of business.

“We have to keep an eye on a lot of things because those bills are still alive unless they get pulled by the sponsor,” Ford said. “We were watching bills that banned embryo adoption by anyone but a married, couple, the broader adoption ban against unmarried couples, the ‘don’t say gay’ bill that would have precluded mentioning homosexuality in grades K-8 and some others. And we also were tracking some positives, such as an inclusive state hate-crime bill that would include sexual orientation and gender identity, and a bill that would allow transgendered persons to amend their original birth certificate to show their correct gender.”

Many pieces of legislation, such as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill, were loaded with misinformation and anti-gay bias, but they nonetheless got traction because representatives didn’t’ want to appear to be pro-gay during an election year. But by knocking back some of this legislation, even temporary, TEP showed how citizens can affect the process, Ford said.

“People like you contacting your representative, hundreds of well-constructed, well-stated e-mails and calls … your work makes a difference,” she said. “The words from the other side is so mean spirited, and when you speak you have visibility, a professional manner, and use words from the heart. It makes a difference.”

Sanders offered up further comments on TEP’s public policy, nothing that there are still efforts to produce a bill that would provide discrimination coverage to state employees for sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as work in Memphis, Chattanooga and other cities to do the same. He also pointed out the recent action by Metro Council member Megan Barry, at the behest of TEP and other groups, to charge Metro’s Human Relations Commission with requesting and collecting data regarding GLBT-related discrimination in the private sector.

Incoming board chair Jonathan Cole added that the process of passing legislation requires patience, referencing his own efforts over several years to get Memphis’ nondiscrimination policies amended. While Shelby County did so in a big win for the GLBT community, the city itself is proving a tougher battleground.

“We are getting some cooperation on a bill that would cover city employees and contractors, but we have a new mayor and a new city attorney,” Cole said. “We’re working on a private meeting with the mayor so that we can see how extensively he’ll back it … we want that administration support, but we also want a fully inclusive bill. Getting there is requiring a lot of patience.”

Indeed, having patience, but also being willing to mobilize at a moment’s notice and keep calling public officials to task will be the group’s major thrust going forward, said H.G. Stovall, president.

“We did not dream of a time when candidates would come to us, and we’re seeing that now,” Stovall said. “It’s working. The list of people receiving our e-mails has grown by a third in the last year, because what we are doing is working. We will work to engage people, we will raise money, and we will make a difference. We don’t have a choice.”

To close out its business, the group held elections. New board members are Robbie Bell, Anthony Johnson and Matia Powell of Nashville; Michelle Bliss, Daniel Forrest and Christy Tweddle of Memphis; and Natalie Reinoehl of Spring Hill. New officers are Jonathan Cole, board chair; H.G. Stovall, president; Ryan Ellis, vice president; Wes Aull, treasurer; Latoya Belgrave, secretary; and Christy Tweddle, member at large.

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