At a city council committee meeting this morning, several council members expressed support for an ordinance protecting city employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. But it quickly became clear that a couple of more conservative council members were opposed to offering LGBT protections. Awaiting the opinion of Mayor A C Wharton's office, the council voted to move the ordinance downstairs for further discussion at the August 10th council meeting.
The ordinance's sponsor Janis Fullilove pleaded a passionate case for equal treatment of LGBT city workers, as well as employees working for companies contracting with the city. Fullilove called the need for equality at City Hall a "human issue," and praised FedEx for taking the lead by adopting a similar policy protecting their workers. She also addressed the concerns of some conservative Christians that a non-discrimination ordinance would allow transgender people to use restrooms for the opposite sex.
"I know there are a lot of people with concerns about people going to the restroom. But how many times do you go into a restroom and look into the stall and ask, what are you? A man or a woman?" Fullilove said.
She continued: "If you had a daughter or son who was gay, would you not want them to be able to work and support themselves?"
Council member Shea Flinn and Edmund Ford Jr. also expressed support. Ford also asked to amend the non-discrimination ordinance to include age, national origin, and disability. Flinn suggested that the council hold the ordinance until August 3rd to determine the opinion of Mayor Wharton's administration.
Supporters of the ordinance literally sat across the room from opponents of LGBT protections (many of them wearing "one man, one woman" stickers as if the discussion were about gay marriage). Tennessee Equality Project's Jonathan Cole, whose equality organization helped draft the ordinance, spoke on behalf of the ordinance's supporters.
"Right now, it's totally legal for the city or someone who contracts with the city to fire someone for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender," Cole said. Cole cited a few stories he'd heard about city employees being denied promotions and even fired after their employer learned their sexual orientation.
Following Cole, Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, spoke in opposition, but it seemed as though he didn't fully understand the scope of the ordinance. Gaines talked as though he believed the ordinance would affect private businesses, but it actually only affects city workers and companies who contract with the city.
"What if a Christian childcare facility is forced to hire a man dressed like a woman?" Gaines asked.
Speaking on the city contract issue, Gaines said, "I'm concerned that a Christian business owner can't do business with Memphis, Tennessee because he can't violate his own conscience."
While Gaines spoke, council person Barbara Swearengen Ware nodded her head in agreement.
"Is there a box on the application that requires people to check gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender? Then how do I know you are unless you're trying to flaunt it in my face?" Ware asked. She contended that the city didn't need this ordinance because it's already an equal opportunity employer. Council person Bill Boyd also expressed opposition to the ordinance.
Council person Jim Strickland asked Gaines if he'd support an ordinance that only protected city workers on the basis of sexual orientation, removing gender identity and expression. Gaines said he'd have to think on it, but that it would be "more palatable."
The ordinance is scheduled for discussion at the full council on August 10th.