On July 1, 2008, a day-care worker discovered the slain body of a young African-American transgender woman in Southeast Memphis. Police later determined the victim to be 20-year-old prostitute Rodney Whitaker, better known by her chosen name of Ebony.
Though no arrest has occurred in the case, if the murder is determined to be a hate crime, there's no protection for transgender people under Tennessee's hate crimes law.
But state representative Jeanne Richardson and state senator Beverly Marrero, both of Memphis, are co-sponsoring a bill that would add gender identity and expression to the current law.
"The legislation would show that the lives of transgender people have value," said Marisa Richmond, president of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. "And it would provide a tool for local law enforcement in prosecuting. Right now, crimes against transgender people in Tennessee are not being treated as hate crimes."
The current hate crimes law, passed in 2000, does include sexual orientation, but not all transgender people are gay. The new amendment would also add "gender expression," which would apply to people who may not be transgender but appear more masculine or feminine than their given gender's social norms.
Richardson and Marrero also are behind a bill that would allow transgender people who have undergone a surgical transition to change the listed gender on their birth certificates. Tennessee is the only state with a law banning such a change.
"A transgender person who has been through a surgical procedure to go from male to female or female to male cannot change their birth certificates, and that makes it difficult to travel or obtain a passport," Marrero said.
The current law also makes it difficult for transgender people to obtain driver's licenses and Social Security cards, since both documents require a birth certificate.
Marrero first introduced the bill in 2005, along with then-state senator Steve Cohen. The bill has been shot down each year since, but Marrero says she'll keep trying until it passes.
"It seems mean-spirited to me that there are people who would be concerned about denying somebody the ability to have this stuff straightened out and make their lives easier," Marrero said.
The two bills were filed this month, and Richardson said she's already heard some negative comments from a few fellow politicians.
"Some of my colleagues from the more rural areas don't see the world in the same way as people from Memphis or Nashville do. The first couple of people I talked to said they wouldn't support [the hate crimes amendment]," Richardson said. "A lot of people up here are very afraid of pro-gay legislation because there's a whole lot of judgment still going on about sexual orientation."
Case in point: At least two anti-gay bills have been filed this session. Representative Stacey Campfield has reintroduced a bill that bans talk of homosexuality in schools, and state senator Paul Stanley of Cordova is bringing back his bill to ban gay adoption.