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A bill pending in Tennessee targets transgender people by expanding the definition of indecent exposure.
As the measure reads, it would broaden the "offense of indecent exposure to include incidents occurring in a restroom, locker room, dressing room, or shower, designated for single-sex, multi-person use, if the offender is a member of the opposite sex than the sex designated for use."
Republican Rep. John Ragan, the bill's lead sponsor, told Nashville newspaper The Tennessean that he simply wants to protect the privacy of people in these venues, which are not covered by current law. He denied that he has transgender people in mind, but he said of potential offenders, "I don't care if they think they're a woman."
LGBTQ groups are sounding the alarm about the bill, which Ragan introduced last month. Tennessee legislators are "attempting to twist and distort a public indecency law put in place to protect people from sexual harassment into a tool to criminalize transgender people," says a press release issued Monday by GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students and teachers.
"Tennessee state resources would be better spent in creating schools that are safe for all students instead of asking taxpayers to shoulder the cost of discrimination," said Justin Sweatman-Weaver, chair of GLSEN Tennessee, in the press release. "With House Bill 1151 -- and 11 additional anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this legislative session -- Tennessee risks being branded a 'state of hate' and opening every resident up to the economic and reputational risks that come along with such an undesirable title."
Neighboring North Carolina, for instance, suffered economic boycotts and damage to its reputation in 2016 when it passed House Bill 2, which barred trans people from using the restrooms and changing rooms matching their gender identity, when those are located in government buildings, including public schools. It has now been partially repealed.
Harassment of trans and gender-nonconforming students is widespread in Tennessee, according to GLSEN. Its 2017 National School Climate Survey found that 71 percent of LGBTQ students in the state experienced verbal harassment at school based on gender expression, and 35 percent experienced physical harassment because of this. And nearly three-quarters of transgender students in Tennessee reported they were unable to use the school restroom aligned with their gender.
"Transgender and gender-nonconforming students should not have to live in fear of being targeted or criminalized by the state, simply for using a locker room or bathroom just like any other student," GLSEN exedutive director Eliza Byard said in the release. "All students, including transgender and gender nonconforming students who already face high levels of discrimination and harassment, deserve to feel safe and welcome at school so that they can learn and thrive."
Other anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in Tennessee this session includes Senate Bill 1499/House Bill 1274, which would require the attorney general to defend local education agencies or their employees when they implement anti-transgender bathroom and locker room policies. The state has also seen the reintroduction of the Natural Marriage Defense Act, which would deny recognition to same-sex marriages. A similar bill failed two years ago, as did an anti-transgender "bathroom bill." In addition, there is a "license to discriminate" bill, which would prevent the state from withholding grants or contracts from businesses or nonprofits that practice discrimination. There is another "license to discriminate" bill focusing on adoption and foster care agencies. Several of these bills are scheduled for committee hearings this week.
GLAAD, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Tennessee Equality Project are also speaking out against the "indecent exposure" bill and other anti-LGBTQ legislation. "This kind of discrimination is bad for more than 160,000 LGBTQ Tennesseans, and it's bad for business," said a statement issued by Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO at GLAAD. "This effort is part of an ongoing coordinated campaign across the country to turn back the progress LGBTQ people have made. The Tennessee state legislature must defeat these bills and demonstrate that they stand with all Tennesseans and with businesses and industry working to make sure the state is a fair and equal place to live and work."
GLSEN Tennessee, the Tennessee Equality Project, and other activists plan to hold a press conference on the bills Tuesday at the state capitol.