Memphis Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression Ordinance Update

As most of you know, the Memphis City Council is currently considering an ordinance that would give special protections for sexual orientation (“SO”) and gender identity/gender identity expression ( “GI” which includes cross-dressers, and transvestites) in the city’s personnel manual. A similar ordinance sponsored by Janis Fullilove was recently pulled due to lack of support. The Tennessee Equality Project (“TEP,” the group advocating for the bill) has found a new person to sponsor their agenda in Councilman Shea Flinn.

On October 21st Councilman Flinn introduced the ordinance and a companion resolution to authorize a study regarding possible discrimination of all kinds in city government including SO and GI. The ordinance was heard by the Personnel Committee on October 26th. Jonathan Cole (of the TEP) and I both spoke at the committee meeting expressing the concerns of our respective constituencies. Unfortunately Mr. Cole used this opportunity to take what to this point has been a respectful debate and resort to name calling and personal attacks. In his comments he referred to those who disagreed with the ordinance as “religious bigots” and “bullies”. After a brief discussion the committee voted to send the ordinance and resolution to the full council for consideration. Councilman Flinn also asked that FACT and TEP be involved in overseeing how the study will be crafted and executed should it be approved by the full council.

Mr. Quintin Robinson, Director of Human Relations for The City of Memphis, has publicly stated that discrimination of any kind including SO or GI was already illegal in Memphis under current laws. He also stated that if any of this kind of discrimination is indeed happening at city hall, a new law would solve nothing because we have an enforcement issue not a law issue. I say “if” because there has not been one official complaint of discrimination because of SO/GI.

The first reading of the ordinance and resolution by the full Council was on Tuesday, November 9th. Prior to the hearing, FACT crafted and presented to each Council Member and the Mayor an extensive letter along with backup documentation addressing our concerns. Read a summary of the letter here. Briefly, the concerns we addressed are:

  1. The ordinance is not needed, nor will it solve any existing problems.
  2. The ordinance will result in significant expenditures by the City.
  3. The ordinance will result in expensive, hard to defend litigation.
  4. The ordinance will violate the rights of private citizens and City employees.

The private sector will eventually be implicated and negatively impacted.
We also recommended that to avoid all these pitfalls and make it abundantly clear that all forms of discrimination are illegal, the city add this language to its current personnel policy: “Decisions to employ, terminate, or promote persons will be based on their merits, qualifications, and job performance.” We also expressed several concerns about the credibility of the study itself and the study process.

I along with other FACT supporters voiced these concerns at the full council meeting last week. At that meeting I was struck by the contrast between the policy/fact-driven message we presented and the emotional/feelings-based approach by the supporters of the ordinance.

The ordinance passed on first reading with Councilmen Conrad and Boyd rightly voting against a second reading. The first reading of an ordinance is usually passed unanimously since the ordinance cannot become law until the third reading. I’m sure a note of thanks to Conrad and Boyd would be encouraging to them! The resolution to commission a study only needs one vote, however, and the study resolution passed with only Councilman Conrad voting against.

Councilman Flinn also restated his insistence that FACT and TEP be involved in the study and announced that the all-important third reading of the ordinance would be tabled until after the study. We have stated to the Council our concern that there will be little time for Council members, FACT, or the general public to review and debate the results of the Study before a quick vote is called for on third reading. We are currently seeking reassurances that a cheap trick like that will not be employed.

We are requesting that all of you that are concerned about this please make those concerns known to the Council and the Mayor. Both Conrad and Boyd have shown their allegiance, so writing them would be a waste of time as would contacting Fullilove. All the others need to hear our voice, especially councilpersons Ford, Halbert, Hedgpeth, Collins and Strickland. Please remember short/respectful letters and e-mails make the most impact. You may get all the contact information for Memphis city government officials here.

I promise to you that we at FACT will continue to lobby the council and inform you the citizenry of what’s happening on this all-important debate. As always we will aspire to do this in a respectful and civil way. Your prayers and support are always felt, appreciated and welcomed.