What's next for LGBT advocacy?

“What’s next” as both a question and an answer started ringing out in the weeks before the Supreme Court marriage ruling. An eagerness to move on is evident in some quarters.

In some ways, “what’s next” is getting back to what we have worked on for years—workplace equality, safe schools, and other aspects of comprehensive civil rights protections. Every equality advocacy organization I know of is committed to the full range of issues affecting our community. The fact that there has been so much media coverage of the marriage issue may have confused some people, but those who are working and volunteering in advocacy fields know that the work on all our issues continues. Let me put it another way. I don’t recall the leader of any major organization saying at 10:30 a.m. on June 26, “We’re done.”

Implementing marriage: All the other issues are urgent and have been urgent for years, but we’re not quite finished with marriage yet. Marriage equality was not a done deal even when the decision came down. Supreme Court rulings have to be implemented. TEP and organizations in other states had to devote substantial time to helping people get married, secure their benefits, and get their documents changed.

I think we were ahead of the game in Tennessee since we had prepared for over a year. It’s a good thing, too. TEP marriage sentinels began calling county clerks around the state immediately to check on their compliance. They continued to call and advocate until all 95 were in compliance. We had best and fastest compliance in the South. As I’ve read the stories about problems in other states, I think we made a wise investment of time.

The Legislature strikes back: As soon as the Supreme Court decision was announced, some state legislators began talking about a special session this summer and about bills to limit the impact of the ruling. Our policy team went to work and reached out to legislative leadership to assess the situation and to slow things down. I think we may avoid a special session, a session that would have been a disaster. But whenever the Legislature reconvenes, the bad bills are coming.

The best I can tell, we will face at least three kinds of anti-marriage equality bills. There will be bills designed to protect clergy and congregations, businesses, and elected officials like county clerks from having to serve LGBT people.

Clergy and congregations are already protected by the First Amendment. The government cannot compel clergy or congregations to participate in marriages that they deem invalid. The bill seems to imply that clergy and congregations are not protected and that the LGBT community is trying to use the government to force them to support equality. I am not aware of any organization whose strategy involves compelling them to marry anyone they don’t want to.

Businesses are probably also protected in Tennessee, and by that I mean that LGBT people are not protected. In other words, because sexual orientation and gender identity are not part of state and federal human rights laws, we can be turned away from public accommodations or businesses. But we should still resist any Religious Freedom Restoration (RFRA) proposals, like the 2014 Turn the Gays Away bill. They are nothing more than a way to drum up hate against our community.

Elected officials are another matter. Exempting clerks from having to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples is a tricky business because it would precisely be enforcing Tennessee’s ban on same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court overturned. If a county did not provide a way for all couples to get married on an equal basis, then I am not sure that an opt-out law for clerks could withstand a court challenge.

Forming what we call POWER Teams around the state is a priority to address these bills. We’re not waiting until January. We recruiting now and we hope to begin training sessions in September. We need an informed, dedicated group to have any chance of prevailing. I expect a strong effort.

The “what’s next” that is a bit more positive: I don’t believe that LGBT-positive legislation is going to move in the Tennessee General Assembly. 2016 is going to be another year of playing defense. I would also be surprised if anything helpful passes in the current U.S. Congress. Our best option is at the local level, meaning counties and cities.

TEP released our local government advocacy agenda in April, and I will not rehash all of it. But here are a few quick notes. I think we can do better in building systems to address violence against our community and domestic violence within our community by working with district attorneys, law enforcement, and community non-profits.

LGBT youth homelessness in our larger cities can decline if we effectively advocate for local governments to commit real budget dollars to transitional housing. I think our cities are making some progress on the issue, but I am personally tired of the endless conversations about the problem of homelessness. I am intensely interested in seeing whether our cities have the will to take a moral and fiscal stand.

I think we can make progress in getting gender confirmation healthcare coverage for transgender people who work for local governments. It is true that it is well past time to do it, but it is also true that we have never been better positioned to advocate for it.

When one looks at the totality of what is ahead for Tennessee’s LGBT community, we have the usual mixture. On the one hand, we have battles we have to fight because of the hate and discrimination being thrown at us, particularly in the Legislature. But we also have some important choices to make about the positive advances to pursue at the local level. We can protect our community and move forward. Let’s speak with a clear, sustained voice and get it done!





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