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Tennessee’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Ignites National Controversy

On Sunday, May 20, 2011, the Tennessee State Senate passed bill SB0049, also known as the “Don't Say Gay” bill, that would outlaw any discussions on homosexuality in classrooms from kindergarten to eighth grade. An additional last-minute amendment enhanced these restrictions, limiting these classroom discussions only to “natural reproductive science.” The bill, having passed 20 to 10, will now advance to the State House of Representatives, which will reconvene in January 2012 to vote on the bill.

On Sunday, May 20, 2011, the Tennessee State Senate passed bill SB0049, also known as the “Don't Say Gay” bill, that would outlaw any discussions on homosexuality in classrooms from kindergarten to eighth grade. An additional last-minute amendment enhanced these restrictions, limiting these classroom discussions only to “natural reproductive science.” The bill, having passed 20 to 10, will now advance to the State House of Representatives, which will reconvene in January 2012 to vote on the bill.

SB0049 has attracted national attention from celebrities, including George Takei, and continues to generate discussion nationally, spurred by the efforts of organizations, including the Courage Campaign, a California-based LGBT group that has launched the “Don't Say Gay? We Just Did!” campaign, using personal video testimonies to show support against SB0049.

The bill was introduced to the State Senate on January 14, 2011, by Stacey Campfield, who was elected in 2010 to the Senate in the State's Seventh District, primarily representing the Knoxville area.

Prior to his election in the Senate, Campfield served in the state House of Representatives, making numerous unsuccessful attempts to get a version of SB0049 to vote in the House, which had been Democratic-controlled until the 2010 elections.

Primary opposition to the bill has been led by Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), Tennessee's largest LGBT civil rights organization.

The all-volunteer run organization was founded in 2004 by LGBT individuals from across the state. TEP operates under three separate branches. Tennessee Equality Project Foundation (TEPF), the 501(c)(4), is the primary lobbying group, with interests in various LGBT-specific legislation in local and statewide settings. The 501(c)(3), TEP Foundation, focuses primarily on statewide education related to specific LGBT issues. TEP PAC offers financial backing for various LGBT-friendly candidates across the state.

Efforts to lobby against SB0049 began even before it was formally introduced. Jenny Ford, their full-time lobbyist, described how she began meeting with TEP prior to January's legislative session.

“Prior to the session, I met with members of TEP to discuss legislation that might be introduced. Given the political shift to a Republican-dominated legislature, we were worried the bill would be introduced. So we immediately began locating and mobilizing potential political allies.”

This approach occurred on several different levels. Beyond locating legislative opposition to the bill, including Sen. Joe Haynes, who represents Nashville's 20th district, TEP, through Ford's help, reached out to as many different groups as possible.

“Beyond the legislators, we set up meetings with school boards, local government organizations and any other affiliated organizations directly involved with students and schools.”

In trying to attract such a diverse audience, what message did TEP promote?

“We tried to tell people to forget LGBT issues. Instead, we wanted to remind people this legislation runs against a history of Tennessee legislative policies. Tennessee has not historically legislated what is taught in schools. We wanted to make sure that people knew the facts and understood, 'this is not what you've done in the past.'”

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TEP's efforts also extended to educational programs organized through TEP Foundation. Wes Aull, TEP's vice president and TEPF's treasurer, described these efforts.

“From the earliest moments, we worked with the national organization Initially they provided 5,000 dollars to help fund our educational campaigns. Since the legislation has passed the Senate, they have sold t-shirts, generating additional revenue to expand public service announcements. These PSAs will explore how this legislation could prohibit teachers from discussing growing problems with bullying in school settings.”

TEP has also worked to support efforts of Tennessee area students most vocal against SB0049. Devon Hicks was one of the first of these activists that TEP recognized.

“Several months ago,” Hicks explained, “I caught wind of the bill and realized I needed to do something. My plan was to hold a protest, so I created a Facebook group to help organize that protest. Pretty soon after, TEPF noticed my efforts and approached me about starting a long-term education program.”

Hicks now serves as the chair of TEPF's Safe Schools Committee and has formally launched the “It's Okay To Say Gay” Campaign.

He described the campaign as “a chance to organize with like minded LGBT organizations to provide students, parents and school staff the resources they need to create safer, more tolerant schools, as well as focus on bullying awareness.”

In order to achieve this, Hicks hopes to use his own experiences with bullying to show the personal impact it can have on a single individual. He explained this by saying, “This is a personal issue for me. In school I was heavily bullied and it took a lot of the joy out of my school experience, to the point where I was leaving early on a constant basis just to get away from it. Even as a straight person, I was often called fag, queer and gayfer.”

SB0049 serves as a stark contrast to national and statewide legislation being passed granting LGBT students additional rights and strengthening anti-bullying protections against LGBT students, in response to last year's string of LGBT suicides, most notably that of Tyler Clementi, a Rutger's University freshman who committed suicide last September.

Recently, California became the first state in the country to require that textbooks include discussions of notable LGBT figures. Though Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to sign the legislation into law and updates on textbooks will not take effect until after the 2015-16 school year due to budget restrictions, the legislation is historic in its scope.

In other states, efforts are mobilizing to advocate for stronger anti-bullying protections to be in place. Ted Martin, of Equality Pennsylvania, explained this in describing the history of anti-bullying legislation in Pennsylvania.

“While an anti-bullying bill was passed in 2008, it failed to enunciate any specific class of individuals, making it difficult to enforce. We are committed to developing legislation that includes specific classes, including LGBT individuals.”

Martin, however, acknowledged that difficulties lie ahead in the passage of such a bill. Pennsylvania had its political landscape restructured in the 2010 and now has a Republican-majority legislature and governor.

“The legislature cares about bullying,” Martin said, “but it's hard to predict how LGBT protections would remain in such a bill. These legislatures haven't necessarily heard LGBT individuals tell their stories.”

While no legislature has introduced a bill to either the House or Senate, Martin said that Equality Pennsylvania is beginning the process of advocating for anti-bullying protections. The beginning steps, he said, are “encouraging people to tell their experiences with bullying.”

He went on to say that “while these stories make people uncomfortable, they will help legislatures better understand the deeply personal impact that anti-bullying legislation has.”

At a national level, House Representative Jared Polis of Colorado and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, sponsored the Student Non-Discrimination Act back in March of this year. The legislation, which would eliminate federal funding for schools that discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation and allow for students who are discriminated to pursue legal action on the basis of this discrimination.

In the context of these state and national pushes for granting LGBT rights, it seems odd that the Tennessee legislature has gone in the opposite direction, but Aull explained how the changing political climate in the state has contributed to SB0049 passing.

“While many Republicans are opposed to the bill, a vocal majority of freshmen Republican Senators were elected in the 2010 elections and believe they must follow-through on promises they made to their constituents.”

Still, Ford is confident that the next six months will provide a chance to mobilize national efforts against SB0049.

“While I cannot describe the specifics of what TEP will be doing, we are continuing to identify allies. It's our intent to reach out to them. We want to make all parents aware that this legislation will set a precedent for other types of legislation that could negatively impact discussion topics in schools.”

Though SB0049 has passed the Senate, its future in the House remains in limbo. As the national climate appears to be coalescing for LGBT equality movements through well-developed, story-driven campaigns against the bill spearheaded by TEP's multi-level approach, support against the bill appears to be building.

Ford summed up this forward momentum by saying that “if we continue to develop a strong, unified voice, we are confident that the legislature will recognize the failures of this bill.” Hicks, too, stressed the need for collaboration saying that “if we do this, we have a good chance [of defeating the bill].”