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The Next Frontier

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As we go to press, the Memphis City Council has not yet crossed the Rubicon on the issue of workplace discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgendered persons. By the time the ink is dry on this issue of the Flyer, that matter will have been resolved one way or another — at least for the time being. But there is a larger decision to be made than that of whether persons in the LGBT category merit such protection as actual or potential city employees — which is how this week's debate was framed and limited.

Earlier this week, as Lee Harris, sponsor of the council antidiscrimination measure, was meditating on the practical question of how and whether to limit his proposed ordinance, he waxed theoretical on what he saw as a likely domino effect. As Harris saw it, passage of workplace protection for city workers would encourage the adoption of such a policy by the quasi-public Memphis Light, Gas & Water agency and subsequently by Shelby County government. Three years ago, the Shelby County Commission was presented with a proposal by Commissioner Steve Mulroy for an explicit ordinance banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, not only within county government but on the part of outside agencies and enterprises doing business with the county. After extensive debate, the commission instead passed a more limited resolution, one which declared it to be the policy of Shelby County government to prohibit discrimination based on "non-merit factors." The measure applied only to county employment.

It was a tentative first step, but, all things considered, it was a move in the right direction.

Between that time and the present, an elephant entered the room in the form of a 2011 law passed by a Tennessee General Assembly dominated by newly elected Tea Party Republicans. That law, meant to nullify an expansive guarantee of general workplace rights passed by the Nashville Metro Council, prohibited any antidiscrimination measures by local jurisdictions which might be in conflict with state law. In effect, that meant that city and county governments could not legislate employment policy beyond the narrow grounds of their own employment ranks.  

That law still stands, which is why Harris and such longtime council supporters of antidiscrimination measures as Shea Flinn and Janis Fullilove have to be content, at most, with domino measures.

Whatever the outcome on the council this week, the more basic question continues to be one of extending workplace opportunities and protections for all citizens in the community. We know enough about the current political environment in Tennessee to keep us from holding our breath waiting for the General Assembly to amend its prior restrictions.           

If there is to be movement on workplace rights in society at large, it is likely to occur at the federal level, and it is there that some light seems to be flickering at the end of the tunnel. Regardless of how the current presidential election turns out, the calm public reaction to President Obama's recent espousal of same-sex marriage rights indicates that fundamentalist sentiment in the nation may be on the wane.

And that's one case where a trickle-down effect could be helpful.

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