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Discrimination Debate

Council may study the need for a nondiscrimination ordinance for gay city employees.

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At least one Memphis city councilman is looking for a little "do ask, do tell."

Proponents of a city ordinance protecting its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) workers from discrimination say fear of retaliation has kept employees from coming forward to talk about unfair treatment.

But Councilman Shea Flinn, the ordinance's sponsor, thinks he has a solution: an anonymous survey of all city workers.

"One of the things that kept coming up in debate previously was that this isn't a problem in the city," Flinn said. "[The Tennessee Equality Project has] had a problem getting people to come forward. We want to craft this study in a way where people feel free to speak their minds so we can gauge the problem."

The City Council's personnel committee approved a resolution calling for the study and the ordinance itself last week. The full council will vote on the resolution for the study and the first reading of the ordinance on Tuesday, November 9th. Though the ordinance must go through three readings before approval, the resolution for the study will either pass or fail at the next meeting.

Flinn took up sponsorship of the ordinance, which was re-introduced last week after the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) asked the former sponsor, Janis Fullilove, to withdraw a similar nondiscrimination ordinance in August due to lack of support.

Before it was withdrawn, the original ordinance was accompanied by a resolution that called for protections for GLBT employees with companies contracting with city government. That drew criticism from opponents, so TEP decided not to pursue the resolution.

"We wanted to bring the ordinance back without the resolution for city contractors, because we felt like that was muddying the issue slightly," said TEP vice chair Michelle Bliss. "We still support that, but at this time, our focus is on getting protection for city employees and improving Memphis' reputation as a place where diversity is valued."

TEP chair Jonathan Cole told council members last week that he has been in contact with GLBT city employees who have disclosed stories of unfair treatment, but "many express reluctance to come forward to tell their stories for fear of losing their jobs or enduring further harassment."

Bliss said TEP supports the proposed study, but she expressed some concern about the way it will be handled.

"We are concerned about the same problems we've had getting people to speak — retaliation and identifying information being gathered or released," Bliss said. "We're also concerned that the right questions are asked."

The city's human resources department will create and administer the survey, and Flinn said he'd like input from TEP and the ordinance's opponents on the Family Action Council. He believes the study will show that discrimination against gay city employees does exist.

Though she expressed some concern with how the study is designed, Bliss also thinks the end result will demonstrate the need for GLBT protections in city government.

"I think they'll find that they have more problems than they think they do," Bliss said. "That would be a good thing, because it will allow [the council] to address the problem."

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