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'Slate of Hate': Advocates decry 'anti-LGBTQ' bills introduced in Tennessee

One of the bills would make indecent exposure illegal in locker rooms — but only for transgender people.
A man walks through the hall outside the House and Senate chambers, in Nashville, Tennessee on Jan. 7, 2019.
A man walks through the hall outside the House and Senate chambers, in Nashville, Tennessee on Jan. 7, 2019.Mark Humphrey / AP file

A series of bills introduced in the Tennessee Legislature have LGBTQ activists outraged over what they have deemed a “slate of hate.”

Twelve separate bills — six companion bills each in the House and the Senate — have been introduced in the legislative session that began this year. Several of the bills were reintroduced after dying without being passed during the last legislative session, which ended in December.

One of the bills is familiar: the Tennessee Natural Marriage Act, which attempts to turn back the clock by banning gay marriage in the state. A fiscal impact assessment published Feb. 22 found that this bill could cost the state more than $9 billion in federal funding. An almost identical fiscal impact assessment was published two years ago when the bill was first introduced.

Another bill in the "slate of hate" would change Tennessee’s indecent exposure statute to apply in a place where nudity is normal: locker rooms. Companion bills HB 1151 and SB 1297 expand the state’s indecent exposure law to apply “in a restroom, locker room, dressing room, or shower, any of which are designated for single-sex, multi-person use, and the person is a member of the opposite sex than the sex designated for use.” Advocates say that since transgender Tennesseans cannot legally change their sex on legal documents, this bill unfairly targets them for criminal prosecution.

The locker room bill adds that “a medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis of gender dysphoria, gender confusion, or similar conditions, in the absence of untreated mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, will not serve as a defense to the offense of indecent exposure.”

John Ragan
State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, is the sponsor of HB 1151.Erik Schelzig / AP file

Rep. John Ragan, the main House sponsor of the indecent exposure bill, told News Channel 5 in Nashville that he had the safety of his two young granddaughters in mind when he filed the bill.

“This bill is about making sure that it is clear where certain behaviors are appropriate and others are not,” Ragan said. “The expectation is, if you are in a restroom that is designated for your sex, you have an expectation of certain conditions."

Ragan did not respond to an NBC News request for comment.

Even this bill’s estimated fiscal impact suggests that it targets a small part of the population: “There will be no significant increase in indecent expose prosecutions or convictions under the provisions of this legislation; therefore, there will not be a significant impact to state or local government revenue or expenditures.”

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said that the bill “uses the ordinary person standard as opposed to the reasonable person standard.” He said it "subjects the trans person to arrest and prosecution” if a person in the locker room decides they are offended by the body they see.

Two other bills would protect Tennessee adoption agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ parents because of “sincerely held religious beliefs.” A South Carolina agency recently sought and received a federal waiver that allows it to decline to place children with Jews and LGBTQ people and not risk losing federal funding; the Tennessee bill would protect other agencies that seek to do the same.

Sanders noted that several of these bills were introduced in the last session, where they died. Even in a state where Republicans control the governorship, House and Senate — lawmakers “file it again and again to see whether the difference in composition of the Legislature makes a difference,” noting that a quarter of the House is newly elected. Several of these bills are up for committee votes starting Tuesday.

Another part of their calculus is federal, Sanders said, noting that “changes in the composition of the courts around this country and under this president might — might — make it possible at some point to get a hearing on these kinds of bills if they pass state legislatures.”

Nick Morrow, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, called the proposals “deeply concerning." He cited the locker bill as particularly problematic, saying it could "effectively erase transgender people from public spaces.”

“Let’s be clear: this 'slate of hate' aims to use LGBTQ Tennesseans as pawns to win cheap political points,” Morrow said. “These lawmakers are supposed to look out for all of us, not just some of us, and they certainly shouldn’t be using their power to make life worse for LGBTQ Tennesseans."

One piece of good news for LGBTQ advocates in The Volunteer State came Feb. 8, when state Attorney General Herbert Slattery published a memo stating that Tennessee's enhanced prison sentences for hate crimes apply in the cases of people targeted because of their transgender status.