While "homophobic" is a term that's often leveled inaccurately, it's hard to argue that the anti-gay legislation that cropped up during this year's legislative session is anything else. LGBT-focused measures sprang out of an apparent paranoia that has become commonplace in the Republican-controlled legislature.
The headliner was the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill, which has become a sort of demented annual event on the Hill. It has repeatedly attracted national attention, particularly since it passed the state Senate last year. In strict legislative terms, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield and Rep. Joey Hensley, does nothing. It would limit discussion in K-8 sex education classes — which don't even exist in the state — to "natural reproduction science," which is already the focus of the state's sex-ed curriculum.
Legislators know this. Several times during testimony on the bill, members of the House Education Committee were told by representatives from the state Board of Education and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents that the bill would change nothing about current practices in the state's schools, and that they didn't believe there was a problem that needed to be solved. A spokeswoman with the state's Department of Education also confirmed that the bill was "consistent with the state's curriculum as established by the state's Board of Education."
But House sponsor Joey Hensley — along with the bill's original sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, who did much of the talking on its behalf — eventually began using that fact as an argument for the bill, asserting that it would not prevent teachers from answering students' questions or keep a guidance counselor from discussing issues of sexuality with a student. Such a rationale came in handy, since the sponsors failed to produce any substantive evidence that graphic, teacher-led discussions of homosexuality were a rampant problem in the state's schools or were even taking place at all.
Once everyone agreed — tacitly, at least — that the bill was unnecessary, it served only as a vehicle for legislators' paranoid swipes at the LGBT community. During a House subcommittee meeting, a Nashville pastor testified that children might just as easily encounter homosexuality by watching ABC sitcom Modern Family even if the subject was banned in schools.
"I don't think Modern Family is appropriate for children to watch," Hensley countered, veering the debate even further from the issue. Hensley's denunciation brought reply within hours from the two actors who play the show's married dads — one of whom is gay off screen — and the show's creator, who took to Twitter to denounce "backwards Tennessee legislators."
Eventually, Hensley decided to drop the bill, after receiving officials' assurances that the Department of Education and the state Board of Education would send a letter to all Tennessee schools, reiterating the parameters of classroom discussion.
But during a time Tennessee Equality Project director Chris Sanders called "the worst point in history for Tennessee's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in years" in an interview with the Scene's Jonathan Meador, another bill did even more to expose the phobic underpinnings of such proposals. Thank Rep. Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga), who introduced legislation that would have prohibited transgender people from using public restrooms and dressing rooms that don't match the sex listed on their birth certificates.
Again, it was a solution for which no one had identified a problem. The bill didn't last a month even in this legislative climate, but that didn't stop Floyd from issuing a defense notable for its ugly resolve.
"I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there — I don't care if he thinks he's a woman and tries on clothes with them in there — I'd just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry," he told Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
The next day, in the ensuing furor, Sen. Bo Watson withdrew his Senate version of the bill. But two weeks later, Floyd said he "meant every word of it" and that he didn't regret saying it.
Luckily for Floyd, he was soon eclipsed by the untoppable Campfield, who told a Sirius-XM radio host that the AIDS virus originated from "one guy screwing a monkey" and "then having sex with men." He also called it "virtually impossible" to contract through heterosexual sex, even though heterosexual sex accounts for upwards of 80 percent of all HIV transmissions worldwide.
There was an effort mounted to undo the most notorious attack on workplace equality in recent memory — HB600, signed last year by Gov. Bill Haslam. Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) sponsored a bill that would have repealed the act, which nullified a Nashville nondiscrimination ordinance that extended protections to LGBT employees of city contractors. Piling insult upon injury, the effort was easily defeated in a Senate committee, without much of a fight.
Given that HB600 was hatched in secret by a closed-door cabal of conservative Middle Tennessee legislators, religious leaders and business interests, the state's LGBT community is now feeling the teeth of the old saw: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
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