Joyce L. Arnold is a liberal Independent whose weekly column “Queer Talk” appears on Saturday.

The current edition of a familiar story is playing out in Tennessee. But the Volunteer State is not alone. For example (and notably, not in “the South”), the Minnesota House and Senate have passed the referendum bill which will put on the ballot the question of amending the state constitution to ban marriage between same-gender couples.

For details about current activities in Tennessee, I’ll provide links at the end. To summarize: If they’d set out to do so, the Tennessee General Assembly couldn’t have done a better job of illustrating the discrimination which LGBT Americans continue to face, in spite of obvious gains. Two bills in particular have gained the national notoriety they deserve.

Last month, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill (as identified by its opponents) passed the Senate with a 20-10 vote. The bill restricts teaching about or discussion of LGBT’s until high school, though an amendment limited the scope somewhat, by saying the measure applies only to prepared materials and instructions. Which is nice, since otherwise any student who mentioned “the gays” for any reason would presumably have to be ignored by the teacher. The House is expected to take up the bill when the General Assembly convenes in 2012.

The “Special Access to Discriminate Act” is receiving lots of attention now, as the Tennessee House and Senate just passed a bill that over-turns the LGBT non-discrimination protection recently enacted in Nashville, and prohibits such protections anywhere in the state. In fact, it bans cities from passing any civil rights legislation. The legislators said it’s all about commerce, and making things fair for businesses across the state.

Lobbying strongly for the “it’s not only okay to discriminate, we’re making it illegal to prevent discrimination” bill was the Family Action Council, whose mission is : “To equip Tennesseans and their public officials to effectively promote and defend a culture that values the traditional family, for the sake of the common good.” Clearly the “homosexuals” are not included in the “common” or the “good.”

The bill gained much attention in the last few days as it became known that the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce had strongly backed the bill. Board members of the TN Chamber: Nissan, FedEx, AT&T, Comcast, DuPont, Pfizer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Caterpillar, KPMG, Whirlpool, Embraer, Alcoa, and United HealthCare.

I spoke, via e-mail, with Chris Sanders, long-time Nashville LGBT activist, and Public Relations Chair of the Tennessee Equality Project, a state-wide organization which, along with the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, PFLAG and multiple others, work toward equality in the state. I think hearing from local activists is vital, and so want to share with you how Chris responded to a couple of questions.

Fairly often when things like these anti-LGBT bills happen, there’s a tendency among some to start generalizing, painting an entire state with a very broad brush of “ignorance,” “backwards,” and such. Among other things, such generalizations often hide the very hard work of quite progressive people. Chris responded:

It’s hard to say how reflective the negative legislation is of the people of Tennessee. The 107th General Assembly is clearly the most socially conservative in recent history. I don’t believe that many of our lawmakers ran for office on a platform of taking non-discrimination decisions out of the hands of cities and counties or on attacking discussion of our community in elementary and middle schools, so most voters did not see this coming. The response throughout Tennessee is that the Don’t Say Gay bill is a joke. Unfortunately it’s a joke the bill sponsor is determined to push to the end.

Secondly, I asked Chris about the relationship of what’s happening in Tennessee to LGBT equality across the nation. His response:

I think the Don’t Say Gay and Special Access to Discriminate bills are a sign of things to come in red states. Even though much of our community believes that SAD will be struck down based on Romer v Evans, legal experts are not unanimous in that opinion. It appears that SAD was deliberately written in such a way to escape that ruling. If that’s the case, then I would not be surprised if the right wing used the same bill in Georgia, for example, to undo Atlanta’s non-discrimination law. While we’ve seen some progress at the federal level and significant progress in other states, progress across the country is neither linear nor inevitable. I see tough years ahead.

For more details, a few links follow. The first I particularly encourage you to check out. GayAmericaBlog initiated a petition, “Hands off our civil rights!”, in response to the SAD bill’s passage. It confronts the Board members of the TN Chamber of Commerce regarding their support of SAD, and urges them to tell TN Governor Haslam to veto the bill. The petition’s goal keeps being raised (it started at 5000), because so many people are signing it. The latest: 7890 signatures, with a goal of 10,000.

See the petition here.

For more information:
Tennessee Equality Project

Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition

GayAmericaBlog

Pam’s House Blend

Box Turtle Bulletin

The Advocate

These kind of legislative efforts seem to be a key part of conservative planning “” no doubt federal efforts will continue, and state and local level efforts aren’t new, of course. But when self-identified conservative legislators take power away from municipal governments (limited government be damned) and explicitly target a group with the intent to limit equality, including in the business world (free market be damned) … it needs to get a lot of attention.