Judy Wilson's family has lived in Tennessee for generations, but she says an aggressive antigay agenda at the capitol makes her ashamed of her home state. "I'm baffled that this state, this country, feels compelled to defend an institution [marriage] that has a 50% failure rate--without any help from homosexuals," said Wilson, who is gay and has a partner of 12 years.
As in other states, preventing same-sex marriages has been a priority for conservatives. But other bills suggest a broader push in Tennessee to restrict gays. Two bills to prohibit gays and lesbians from adopting children are moving forward. Another would prohibit the state from recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships from other states.
Tennessee law already defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, but lawmakers are trying to prevent same-sex marriages allowed by courts in other states from being recognized in Tennessee by amending the state constitution. The legislature approved the ban last session by a simple majority and now needs a two-thirds majority this session before the question can be put to voters on the next gubernatorial ballot. The state senate is expected to pass the legislation Monday. The house version gained momentum last week when it was unanimously approved by a finance subcommittee.
Eleven states passed anti-gay marriage amendments in November, and opponents of same-sex marriage have taken steps to do the same in another 17 states, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Wilson, a 54-year-old graphic designer, said she hopes Tennessee's governor, Phil Bredesen, "has the courage to do the right thing and not join so many others in demonizing a group of people."
Bredesen has said he expects the legislation to pass, but he has no taken a stance on it. He said much of what's happening is simply "politicking on cultural issues." "And everyone is entitled to do that," Bredesen recently told a reporter from the Associated Press. "But when you get through, I want to talk to you about TennCare and some of the things that are much more day-to-day concerns of Tennesseans."
TennCare is the state's expanded Medicaid program, which the governor is trying to reform by cutting 323,000 off the rolls and reducing benefits for those who remain. With problems like that facing the state, Tennessee lawmakers don't need to be worrying about same-sex marriage, said Melissa Snarr, an assistant professor of society and ethics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. "I think slashing TennCare is more important to families than gay bills," Snarr said. "It's a distraction."
But lawmakers sponsoring the antigay legislation say they are looking out for the family, especially in the case of adoption. "We want to create the best possible family situation for children that we can," said Republican senator Jim Bryson, who is sponsoring the bill that would prevent gays from adopting. "And most people would say that's to have a mother and a father."
With thousands of children in state custody, those opposing the antigay adoption bill say it keeps people who want to provide a "loving and caring home" for a child from doing so. "The real issue for children is the kind of care a person provides them," said Victor Anderson, associate professor of Christian ethics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. "And that's not a unique domain of heterosexuals."
David Miller, 32, said he and his partner have made a comfortable home for his 5- and 6-year-olds from a previous marriage. The children refer to his partner as "stepdaddy," Miller said. "By not recognizing gay relationships, they're devaluing the relationship in our children's eyes," he said. "They need to feel that their family is a real family." (AP)