Metro Weekly

Tennessee governor signs “indecent exposure” bill, sparking fear about anti-trans harassment

Lawmakers table an anti-trans student restroom bill and an anti-gay adoption bill that were part of the "Slate of Hate"

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee – Photo: Facebook.

In the end, the bulk of bills comprising Tennessee’s infamous “Slate of Hate” were defeated during this year’s legislative session.

For months, LGBTQ advocates in the Volunteer State had warned that Republican lawmakers in Nashville were pushing six bills that targeted LGBTQ individuals and same-sex couples.

Among those bills were measures to allow private adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, voice disapproval of transgender students who use restrooms matching their gender identity, prevent local governments from providing incentives to companies with LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, and allow state officials to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages as valid.

In the end, most measures were tabled, save one: a bill defining “indecent exposure,” which, in its original form, would have included any transgender person who used a bathroom other than the one designated for their biological sex at birth.

After much of the language specifically targeting transgender people was removed, the bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate and House, with most Republicans voting in favor of the measure and all Democrats (as well as a handful of Republicans from major metropolitan areas) voting against it.

On May 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed the measure into law, but LGBTQ advocates still worry the bill will be interpreted as condoning harassment of transgender people in so-called “public spaces.”

Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, told Metro Weekly that the organization had called on Lee to veto the bill due to those aforementioned concerns.

He said there were three specific provisions in the original version of bill that directly targeted transgender people: one with language saying that gender dysphoria could not be used as an affirmative defense for someone charged with indecent exposure, a similar reference to “gender confusion” — which is a slur and not a medically valid diagnosis — and language that would have criminalized the mere presence of a person in a space that does not match their assigned sex at birth. All of those provisions were eventually removed.

But Sanders noted that even the amended bill could lead to harassment of transgender people by classifying their use of single-sex, multi-user restrooms, locker rooms, or dressing rooms as a form of “indecent exposure” if someone finds their presence objectionable.

“Historically, there is a long history of policing, assaulting, and harassing transgender people in spaces like locker rooms,” Sanders said. “And even though trans people are not directly mentioned in the bill, by enumerating the spaces where indecent exposure is defined in the code, there are concerns that that might lead to more reporting and policing of trans people in those spaces.”

Additionally, because Tennessee is one of only three states where people are expressly prohibited from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates, transgender people — even those who have undergone gender confirmation surgery — will not be able to obtain documents reflecting their correct gender. That may make it harder for them to “prove” they have a right to use gender-specific facilities if someone else complains.

Tennessee State Capitol Senate Chamber – Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel, via Wikimedia.

Two other bills from the “Slate of Hate” were passed by the State House of Representatives, but the State Senate delayed action on them until the 2020 legislative session, which begins next January. This gives LGBTQ advocates additional time to convince Tennesseans that these bills are harmful and unnecessary.

The bills in question were a measure that mirrors a South Carolina law allowing child placement agencies to reject prospective parents, including same-sex couples, based on the agency’s moral or religious objections to their marital status, religion, or other characteristics.

Miracle Hill Ministries, a South Carolina foster care agency, petitioned the Trump administration for a waiver that would allow them to continue receiving federal taxpayer funds even as they discriminate, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granting the waiver. Similar laws have passed in 10 states, including in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Georgia last year.

“The move to delay a vote on this harmful legislation is an unequivocal win for Tennessee’s foster children, Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel at Children’s Rights, said in a statement. “Children’s Rights has long fought to reform the state’s child welfare system, and we will continue to oppose any move that would limit the number of safe and loving homes available to children in foster care.”

The other bill would have directed the Attorney General’s Office to defend any school districts that adopt policies that bar transgender students from using restrooms or locker rooms that don’t match their assigned sex at birth. Senators voted to refer the bill back to committee, defeating it until the start of the 2020 session.

The student “bathroom bill” garnered significant opposition from major corporations, including Amazon — which has plans to expand its operations in the state — Postmates, Bridgestone, and even Nashville’s professional football team, the Tennessee Titans.

More than 100 business leaders signed an open letter, organized by the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce and Freedom for All Americans, urging lawmakers to defeat any bills targeting the LGBTQ community.

Many LGBTQ advocates noted that North Carolina lawmakers ignored similar advice, and the state (and its cities) suffered harmful economic consequences after it became the target of boycotts for passing HB 2, an anti-LGBTQ law, in 2016.

Sanders noted that opposition from the corporations garnered much attention on social media, and expressed hope that such negative publicity would make lawmakers think twice before attempting to ram the bills through the legislative process.

“Tennessee is a great place to do business, and we want to keep it that way,” Joe Woolley, the CEO of the Nashville LGBT Chamber, said in a statement. “Lawmakers should learn from what happened in North Carolina, where anti-transgender legislation cost the state $2 billion in lost revenue. Businesses in Tennessee have serious concerns about their ability to continue investing in Tennessee’s economy if any anti-LGBTQ bills become law. It is imperative that our legislature reject these discriminatory bills and ensure that Tennessee remains open for business to all.”

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