Politics » Politics Feature

"Ambiguous Genitalia"

The County Commission settles for a simple policy statement on discrimination.



So in the end, Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism's bland resolution opposing "non-merit" discrimination against Shelby County employees in general was substituted for colleague Steve Mulroy's ordinance, which, as originally proposed, would have specifically prohibited job discrimination against gays, lesbians, and transgendered people in both the public and private spheres of Shelby County.

Before the commissioners voted at Monday's meeting, they heard from a myriad of speakers, pro and con. Some were articulate. Some could barely talk. Most were dignified. Some, on both sides of the issue, were showboats. Rare was the original argument, though at least two speakers, on either side of the issue, did their best to get at the nitty-gritty — one woman speaking of trying to make organs fit where they weren't meant to and a supporter of the resolution, an apparent transgendered female, talking frankly about "ambiguous genitalia."

Given that this was a political environment, after all, two of the most effective spokespersons for the resolution were the scions of prominent political families.

There was Jimmy Rout, son of former county mayor Jim Rout, a Republican. "I had the advantage of growing up in a Christian family and a Christian home with parents who loved me for what I am and who I am," he said.

Close behind him came Jimmy Farris, the son of Bill Farris and Jimmie Farris, the former a Democratic political broker nonpareil for two generations, the latter an influential party activist for at least as long. Both, said the son, had accepted his gayness and understood that "I was born this way." Farris concluded modestly, "This is a matter of simple decency and dignity and respect."

Virtually all of the audience testimony opposed to the resolution was religious in nature. An extreme version came from a young African-American woman who delivered the astonishing news that there was "no discrimination whatsoever" to be corrected. "Homosexuality is an abomination," she declared — a statement she felt herself empowered by God to make because, as she said, "I am an elect."

Then there were those who sought election of a more secular sort. Millington grocer Terry Roland, an announced candidate for a commission seat next year, challenged the author of the original ordinance:

"Now my spin on this is, Commissioner Mulroy, I think that what you're doing here is trying to stir up the community with a campaign issue right here at election time. ... You know, we should be up here debating school issues, funding, keeping people in this community rather than running people out. Because that's what's going to happen if we keep hitting the business community on the head with ordinances like this."

Never mind that Mulroy's ordinance was long gone. Proponents, too, invoked it — like labor leader Howard Richardson, who began, "I came to ask the commission to vote for the ordinance that was introduced by Commissioner Cohen ... er, Commissioner Mulroy."

The effect of Richardson's Freudian slip was to acknowledge Mulroy as an inheritor of the progressive gadfly tradition of U.S. representative Steve Cohen, himself a onetime member of the commission.

Before the voting started, Mulroy had said of Chism's substitute, "That's consistent with what I wanted all along, which was to prevent this kind of discrimination, and I'll be happy to support it. And I urge the commissioners to do so."

It did so, by a convincing 9-4 vote, and members of Memphis' gay and lesbian community pronounced themselves pleased and went on to celebrate. But neither Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who had led the fight against both ordinance and resolution, nor the supporters of his position, on or off the commission, seemed particularly vexed.

After all, as Carolyn Watkins of the local Economic Opportunity Commission conceded, her office did not have "the ability to enforce" the resolution, which, unlike an ordinance, was only a statement of policy.

Perhaps, though, former Commissioner Walter Bailey had been on point when, speaking on behalf of the resolution, he said, "It serves as a benchmark for Shelby County government in terms of forthrightly saying to the world, 'You will not be discriminated against in Shelby County government on the basis of the way you look, the color of your skin, your religion, or your associations or orientation. And to me we've come a long way."

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