Another year, another two cruel anti-LGBTQ bills from Tennessee

I’m a husband. I’m a father. But if Republican lawmakers from my home state had their way, I would be forcibly stripped of both titles.

Let’s start with parenthood. A pair of GOP lawmakers in Tennessee, Rep. John Ragan and Sen. Joey Hensley, have introduced a bill that would allow adoption agencies to turn away qualified couples and individuals simply because they are LGBTQ. The intended rejection is couched under “religious exemption” claims, but the overall idea is to give adoption agencies a free pass to discriminate. That is always the idea with policy proposals like this one.

In this case, the lawmaker behind it, Rep. Ragan, isn’t even denying that it’s discrimination. Literally. He used that very word, saying that “by definition it is discriminatory.” He doesn’t care who knows it. He believes so much in fostering this hostile climate that he is willing to tie his intended legislation to a word that has defined every civil rights violation in American history. 

What no one should admire is the other proposal that the Tennessee GOP has put forward: An effort to essentially ignore the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling. They call this little nugget of hatred the “Tennesse Natural Marriage Defense Act,” and essentially it is an effort to put a new state policy ahead of federal law so that no local officials would be allowed to facilitate same-sex marriages. Which is of course extremely unconstitutional and would go straight to court, but who even knows which way that would go with the Trump-stacked courts that now dot our land at every level?

Court success aside, the fact that these GOP lawmakers are even trying out these backwards, crude, retrograde, mean spirited ideas is the bigger story for right now, regardless of how far their proposals actually get. For all of us, it’s a reminder that we must stay vigilant, as the discriminatory mindset that held us back for so many decades is still alive and unwell here in far too many of these United States. For me personally, it’s also a cruel reminder of why I left Tennessee in the first place.

For me, Tennesssee has always been a gorgeous state—truly one of our most beautiful—with such a wonderful culture and some of those most decadent food I’ve ever known. It’s also always been something else. Just when I get comfortable with The Volunteer State, there will pop up these built-in reminders that tell me I am still not as welcome there as I would like. This was always true for me as a boy, knowing I had to hide who I was in order to avoid humiliation, at best, and physical harm as an all-too-likely worst. It continued to be true for me as a college student, when I began finding my freedom, yet also suffering indignities at every turn. And even though I have lived in NYC for nearly twenty years, have been with my husband for sixteen, have a wonderful five-year-old daughter who has given me a purpose that goes beyond anything else, and have robust protections and outsized support from my local community, these harsh reminders from the state of my birth continue to haunt. Going back to visit is something to which I look forward, as Nashville is having a moment and I’m proud to be a native son who gets to introduce his child to its rich beauty. However, I’ve never once gone back without having at least a little something jar me into the past. Every return is met with unfortunate reminders. 

Rather than make amends for its decidely anti-LGBTQ past and move forward with a new, Kasey Musgraves-led englightment, there are far too many lawmakers in Tennessee who continue to dirty up the state’s reputation. Remember the “Don’t Say Gay” bill from a few years back? Or the “Natural Meaning” proposal from 2017? Or the multiple year efforts to allow businesses to freely and openly discriminate? These reminders come regularly and harshly from Tennessee.

The sad thing is that I know firsthand of the strong resistance that is embedded within the state. My Facebook alone is jam packed with native Tennesseans who are just as embarrassed by this nonsense as I am. Unfortunately, those voices get far overshadowed by the continual appearance of draconian proposals that some of the harshest language of any statewide legislation. It’s seriously as if some Tennessee lawmakers are determined to present the most wackily headline-grabbing ways to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Like it’s some sort of sick contest to not only enforce horrible policy, but to do so with an extra crude flair. 

Will these latest two crude, headline-grabbing proposals make it through the state legislature? It’s quite possible. Both houses are heavily controlled by the Republicans (there are only five Democratic senators in Tennessee), and the local GOP has made no effort to rebuke any of these members for their wantonly cruel proposals. On the contrary, the state party has continued to make anti-LGBTQ advocacy one of its pillars.

But whether these proposals advance or not, the damage to the reputation is already done. Instead of reckoning with its past and building a climate where natives like myself would feel safe and comfortable returning with our families with pride, these local lawmakers are providing sad reminders on the daily. For all of us, these reminders should be wake up call. For me, they are also reminders of why leaving the state always felt much more like necessity than a choice.


Jeremy Hooper is a writer, activist, and father in New York, NY.