As the law currently stands, any worker in Shelby County or the city of Memphis can be denied employment or even fired because he or she is gay. There are no federal, state, county, or city protections for gay, lesbian, or transgender workers.
But County Commissioner Steve Mulroy hopes to make Shelby County the first county in the state to add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" to the existing employment non-discrimination policy.
"This would be both historic and unremarkable," Mulroy says. "Historic because we're blazing a trail for Tennessee and unremarkable in that there are 20 states and 200 local governments that have already taken this step, not to mention pretty much every major Fortune 500 company."
Mulroy's proposal covers Shelby County workers, employees of companies who contract with the city, and people employed by private businesses with more than 15 employees in unincorporated Shelby County. It will go to the full commission for a vote on Monday, June 1st.
"Right now, there's nothing to stop a private employer or Shelby County government or a contractor from saying, you've got a great performance evaluation and you're my top employee, but you're gay, so I'm going to fire you," Mulroy says.
The Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) has been working with Mulroy on drafting the ordinance for several months, but various local gay rights groups, including TEP, have been working with the city on a similar ordinance for years.
"We're still waiting on the city to bless the draft we've presented to them, but in the meantime, the county has leapfrogged in front of the city," says TEP's Jonathan Cole.
In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives debated adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal employment policy under the Employment Non-discrimination Act. After bowing to pressure from conservatives, Massachusetts representative Barney Frank eventually removed "gender identity" from the bill. It passed the House but never made it to the Senate floor.
When asked whether gender identity could be a hang-up for passage of the county ordinance, Cole says he's prepared to defend the transgender protection.
"TEP won't support an ordinance that does not include gender identity," Cole says. "People who are transgender are disproportionately affected by employment discrimination than any other demographic."
But Mulroy says he believes he has enough support on the commission to pass the ordinance.
"We can send one of two messages to the world with this. We can say that Shelby County is a place that welcomes diversity and is a congenial place for talented workers across the country to move to," Mulroy says. "Or we can send the signal that we're stuck in 18th century, old-fashioned, Bible-Belt intolerance."