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COMMENTARY: Homophobic Tennessee lawmakers can eat my grits!

Ever been to Tennessee, the Volunteer State? Tap your toes in Nashville, the heart of country music? Hike through the majestic Smoky Mountains? Traipse through Elvis’ Graceland mansion in Memphis? Or visit Ruby Falls and Rock City in Chattanooga?

Lots of wonderful people are from Tennessee: historical figures like Davy Crockett and Sequoia; singers such as Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Isaac Kaye; celebrities like Dinah Shore, Cybil Shepherd and Morgan Freeman. Some of my ancestors are from there, too.

Alas, some of the biggest homophobes in the world also live there. And it seems that many of them have been elected to the Tennessee legislature, which last year passed a law that prohibits local governments from approving anti-bias laws. That law was designed to overturn Nashville's ordinance that outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians by companies doing business in Music City.

If that isn't bad enough, the Tennessee legislature is now trying to push through several bills that would negatively affect the LGBT community.

The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill would prevent teachers from talking about gay issues or discussing anything involving the LGBT community. If the bill passes, students in Tennessee schools would not learn anything about gay people. Wonder what they will call us?

A watered-down anti-bullying bill would create a religious exemption that would allow bullies to continue to harass, pick on, demean and abuse other students if their faith disapproves of LGBT people. Tennessee lawmakers seem to think that God has chosen sides on the issue and only loves straight people.

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, has gotten into hot water for his comments attempting to justify why he introduced a bill to bar transgender people from using public restrooms and public dressing rooms if their birth certificate doesn’t match their gender identification. In other words, a transgender woman who was born a man cannot use a women’s restroom and a transgender man who was born a woman cannot use a men’s restroom.

Floyd told the Times Free Press that he would physically harm transgender people who violate his set of rules.

“I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there — I don’t care if he thinks he’s a woman and tries on clothes with them in there — I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry.”

The outcry with swift. The bill has been pulled from the Senate’s agenda, and Floyd cannot find another senator to sponsor it.

Meanwhile, supporters of equality got a boost this week when the father of Matthew Shepard flew to Tennessee to protest the bills.

Dennis Shepard knows first-hand the pain and heartache caused by homophobia. His son, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, was tortured and left for dead in 1998. Matthew Shepard died later from his horrific injuries, and the gory details shocked the nation and eventually inspired the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Oct. 28, 2009.

Shepard drew a crowd to his news conference at Tennessee Legislature Plaza in Nashville, the state capital, telling reporters that he was disturbed by the tone of the bills. He urged Tennessee lawmakers to work “toward an all-inclusive law toward hate crimes.”

He noted that two Tennessee teens who were victims of bullying have committed suicide in the past two months: Phillip Parker Jr., 14, an eighth-grader at Gordonsville High School, and Jacob Rogers, 18, a senior at Cheatham County High School.

“These bills disturb me, just the fact that they’ve been brought to the forefront and there’s so much publicity about them. I’m concerned about the kids. They are our most valuable asset. They are our hope for the future. We can’t afford to lose a single one. We’ve lost two in the last 30 days. We’ll never know what those two young men could have done to help the city, the state and the country.”

Shepard specifically called out Rep. Floyd:

“The comment about stomping transgender people — that does encourage. What it does it say, 'Well, nobody’s going to do anything.' It creates a policy of it’s open season. That’s what happened to Matt. Wyoming is one of five states that has no hate crime law whatever. So when they beat him, fractured his skull in 18 places with a butt of a .357 and left him to die, they thought, ‘no harm, no foul.’” They thought, ‘Who’s going to do anything? It’s just another gay.’”

Shepard is spot on with his criticism of the Tennessee bills. When will lawmakers learn that we are all God’s creations and deserve full and equal rights?

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.