Since 2007, Jonathan Cole has been fighting for equality in various roles with the Tennessee Equality Project, the state's LGBT rights organization. From convincing the Memphis City Council to add workplace protections for city employees to lobbying against anti-gay bills in Nashville, Cole has done it all. He took out a few minutes to talk to Memphis Gaydar:
How long have you been involved with the Tennessee Equality Project?
I’ve been appointed or elected to a number of volunteer roles for Tennessee Equality Project since 2007. I was named co-chair of the Shelby County Committee in 2007 and later served as chair from 2008 until 2010. Anne Gullick is the current chair of TEP’s Shelby County Committee. I was elected to the statewide TEP Board in 2008. I’ve served as secretary, chair, and president and chair of the board. I currently serve as vice president. I’ve also served as a board member of TEP’s Political Action Committee since 2007.
What does your current VP role entail?
I coordinate TEP’s advocacy efforts in West Tennessee. I support the work of our steering committee chairs in Shelby and Madison Counties as we advance local campaigns (like last October’s employment non-discrimination ordinance in Memphis) and state-level efforts to engage the Tennessee General Assembly. Citizen engagement will be essential in opposing anti-LGBT bills in the state legislature in 2013. In the coming weeks, I will be helping to organize West Tennesseans for Advancing Equality Day on the Hill in Nashville on March 12th.
Before getting involved with TEP, what other sorts of activism were you involved in?
From 1999 until 2007, I served on and off the board of Integrity-Memphis, an LGBT advocacy group within the Episcopal Church. Most of my efforts were devoted to challenging the parishes, clergy, and the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee to become more welcoming to LGBT people and their families.
My interests turned more secular when organizing local opposition to the Marriage Discrimination Amendment to the Tennessee Constitution in 2006. Voters were asked to enshrine discriminatory language in the state constitution that year in a referendum on the November ballot. While serving on the board of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, I helped organize grassroots opposition to the Marriage Discrimination Amendment. We lost that battle, but the fight for equal rights for LGBT people and their families in Tennessee continues on other fronts.
You've become one of the most public faces in the local fight for LGBT equality. Did you ever imagine yourself in such a spotlight?
Not really. While I feel blessed that I can play a role in advancing equal rights for my community, my greatest hope is that new leaders will step forward to represent our diverse community. I can’t possibly represent the interests of my entire community.
How have you adjusted to that public role?
I can honestly say that nothing I’ve done would be possible without the love and support of my husband Paul. The political work that I do requires a lot of networking, community organizing, and engaging the media that happens after-hours outside my full time job. This has always meant time away from home and family. Paul helps me stay grounded in the simplest of ways whether it’s making dinner, folding my laundry, or telling me it’s okay to say “no” when that public role becomes too demanding.
What accomplishments are you most proud of from TEP?
I devoted more than five years to advancing workplace protections in Memphis and Shelby County. I am most proud of the LGBT-inclusive employment non-discrimination ordinance passed by the Memphis City Council on October 16, 2012.
We were very close to passing the ordinance in 2010, closer than most people realized. A consensus on the council was ready to pass an ordinance that would add sexual orientation to workplace protections for city employees and job applicants in 2010. But there were not enough votes to add gender identity. I knew then that we’d never get the council to add gender identity in the future if we compromised. We failed in 2010, but we came back again in 2012 to fight for an LGBT-inclusive ordinance. I’m proud that we stood together as a community until we could do the right thing.
I am also proud of the fact that TEP and its allies were able to defeat several anti-LGBT bills in the 107th Tennessee General Assembly when I was president and chair of TEP’s Board: “Don’t Say Gay,” “License to Bully” and the “Police the Potty” bills were the most prominent last year.
What is next on the horizon for the Shelby County committee?
The Shelby County Commission voted for a resolution in 2009 which offers some workplace protections for LGBT county employees and job applicants. County workers deserve the same level of protection in a non-discrimination ordinance that city employees now enjoy.
Interest is also building among city employees for domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian couples (health insurance, family and medical leave, etc.). Our committee is ready to work with county and city employees and community supporters to advance these goals.
Memphis has come a long way in recent years, but are there areas where we still need work?
I would like to see more LGBT people running for office in local and state government in Memphis. In particular, I look forward to supporting an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender African American for elected office. I’ll know that Memphis has arrived when that happens.
On a less serious note, what's your favorite thing about Memphis?
The people of Memphis. Southern hospitality is alive and well in this city. Memphis is the biggest small town in America. I like the fact that people speak to one another here. That doesn’t happen in bigger cities.
Where do you take out-of-town guests?
Paul and I are big foodies. We proudly expose out-of-towners to the best food that Memphis has to offer. I make sure they stay away from what I call tourist BBQ. I tell them to try Payne’s, Cozy Corner, or Central BBQ before going anywhere else. We tend to take guests to places in Midtown or Downtown where we like to eat or drink: Alchemy, Sweet Grass Next Door, Cafe 1912, Bari, Young Avenue Deli, Rizzo’s Diner, Gus’s Fried Chicken, Mollie Fontaine. We also like Acre, Andrew-Michael and Hog & Hominy in East Memphis.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Friends frequently ask me when I plan to run for office. I have no plans to do so. I think I am more effective influencing government and policy makers from the outside. I’m a social worker in my professional life who loves community organizing. I’ll probably be doing the same thing in 10 years.