If you don't succeed, try, try again. That's the attitude driving the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) to push for a last-minute change that will add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance protecting city workers.
Memphis city councilman Lee Harris proposed adding national origin, age, ethnicity, and disability to the city's current nondiscrimination ordinance for city employees, and his fellow council members have approved those additions on two readings.
As the ordinance goes up for third reading on Tuesday, September 18th, TEP is asking Harris to amend the ordinance to add three more protections: sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
If Harris agrees to the amendment, this will be the third time such an ordinance has been proposed at council. TEP and its sponsor, Janis Fullilove, pulled the first proposed LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in August 2010 before its second reading because of negative feedback from Mayor A C Wharton and several council members.
The second such ordinance, proposed by council member Shea Flinn later in 2010, was extracted from the consent agenda and voted down on second reading.
"We believe we have the votes this time," said Jonathan Cole, chair of TEP's Shelby County committee. "Most of the members of the council are serving a repeat term, but Lee Harris took the seat that Barbara Swearengen-Ware had, and he is pro-equality. Swearengen-Ware was not friendly to us."
Harris said he hasn't made up his mind about whether he'll insert the amendment, but he expects to release an official statement this week if he does decide to add it.
"I commend [TEP] for pushing hard, and it's an important issue and one that I agree with," Harris said.
When asked whether he thought the amendment would have a chance at passing this time, Harris sounded positive.
"It's a new day on the council. Obviously, we have to keep our fingers crossed, but I think the council is ready to move forward because the community is ready to move forward," Harris said. "Memphis wants to be a community that's known as welcoming of diversity and inclusion, and I think that's where we are going to be."
Since TEP began pushing for protections in 2010, Cole has heard several stories of gay city employees experiencing harassment from co-workers.
"We have heard of instances where employees have experienced sexual harassment that is same-sex oriented," Cole said. "We've talked with police officers who have endured harassment on the job. They might find a religious leaflet with an anti-gay statement waiting on their windshield."
Currently, city employees are only protected on the basis of religion, race, creed, political affiliation, and other non-merit factors. Nashville and Knoxville have passed LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances. Knoxville's passed unanimously last year. The Shelby County Commission passed a watered-down ordinance that essentially protects LGBT employees in 2010.
This most recent push to add the LGBT-inclusive ordinance in Memphis is supported by the Memphis Police Association, the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Memphis branch of the NAACP, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 474, ADAPT of Tennessee, the Shelby County Democratic Party, and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.