We Are Better Than This, Tennessee

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April 6, 2016
Gregory R. Nevins

When you’re from Tennessee, you learn a way of thinking and talking about the, shall we say, less inspiring chapters of your state’s history.

Sometimes one’s hometown or state is unwittingly party to an injustice; particular to those from my native Memphis is an urgent need to point out that James Earl Ray, who assassinated Dr. King, had nothing to do with Memphis before that fateful day.

But there will be no excuse for Tennessee if it follows North Carolina’s lead: The legislature has heard from transgender youth who are the targets of HB 2414, which is being heard in the House Education Committee today.

Tennessee HB 2414, and its Senate companion, SB 2387, would deny transgender students in Tennessee access to bathrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity. Also today, the House will consider HB 1840 (its Senate companion already passed) which would permit licensed counselors and therapists to turn away LGBT patients on religious grounds.

The lawmakers and the governor know the consequences of making this terrible legislation the law, and can’t claim otherwise. 

I say all that because North Carolina has become a national laughingstock after a new bathroom law passed in a day, and Gov. Pat McCrory hurriedly signed it because of some urgent need he saw. 

This prompted the Charlotte Observer to post an editorial, “McCrory joins a dark list of Southern governors,” bemoaning “a governor joining a sorrowful list of those who decided not to lead us forward, but to bow to the worst in us.” 

By contrast, the first reaction attributed to Gov. Bill Haslam about the Tennessee bathroom bill was a concern about how much money the state could lose in federal education funds if it were to become law. 

There’s a reason that Gov. Haslam is worth $2 billion – mama didn’t raise no fool.  Let’s hope he channels the smarts it took to amass his personal fortune toward a rejection of HB 2414.

Tennessee has been blessed with quality leaders, and I hope it shows that caliber leadership in 2016.  Who are the most prominent Tennessee politicians post-World War II?  The anti-segregationist Estes Kefauver, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and Vice President Al Gore. Score one for Tennessee.

Does anyone know who was governor of Tennessee in the ’50s and ’60s? Good, let’s keep it that way.  There’s no Wallace or Faubus or Barnett albatross hanging around our neck. And heaven forbid that anyone be able to name one of your sheriffs or a “commissioner of public safety” from that era. Bless your heart, Alabama. 

A popular North Carolina hashtag is #WeAreNotThis, and I believe Tennessee is better than these bills.  In vetoing an anti-LGBT measure last week, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal wrote, “Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people.” 

It may sound corny to some, but it means a lot in the South to have that reputation, and I hope Tennessee will be able to say the same thing in rejecting this hostile, discriminatory legislation in favor of love and acceptance.