Tennessee business titans bristle at Republican lawmakers' bills targeting state's LGBTQ community

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in War Memorial Auditorium, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - The world's only known transgender billionaire warned Monday she may move her private family trust out of Nashville if Tennessee Republican lawmakers continue efforts to enact a series of anti-LGBTQ measures into law.

"As a transgender woman, these unnecessary and hurtful laws are personal to me," said Jennifer Pritzker, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and businesswoman who inherited portions of her family's vast fortune, as she joined a video news conference hosted by the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Pritzker said as a "businesswoman, my larger concern is the impact they will have on Tennessee's reputation and, ultimately, economic well-being, as businesses and tourists turn elsewhere. No state benefits from the perception that it is an intolerant and unwelcome place for people of different backgrounds, and it alarms me gravely to see this state vying for the title of least inclusive in the nation."

Pritzker and major companies including Nissan North America, Amazon, Dell, Pilot, Mars PetCare and Warner Music Group and all the way down to small Nashville businesses are objecting to 15 bills that Republicans are pushing this year.

One of them, a bill banning transgender youth from competing in public middle and high school sports based on whether their gender identity matches their gender at birth, has already been signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. Last year, Lee, a religious conservative, signed into law a bill that allows faith-based adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples seeking to adopt.

All told, 180 national and local firms raised alarms in a letter and statements over what LGBTQ advocates call a "slate of hate" that includes two anti-transgender "bathroom" bills and efforts to sharply restrict hormone and other treatments for anyone under age 18.

"They call themselves pro-business Republicans, but they're the ones who are passing this legislation and harming the state," said Nashville LGBTQ Chamber Executive Director Joe Woolley.

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said "I greatly appreciate these businesses for exercising their First Amendment voices with us. Sometimes we will have disagreements on policy, and sometimes we will agree. I look forward to continuing to move Tennessee in a conservative direction, which has allowed businesses to grow and prosper in our state."

In 2016, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill into law restricting bathroom use for transgender people. It spurred boycotts from businesses and sports leagues who saw it as discriminatory. The state repealed the law in 2017.

Woolley said Tennessee is "the state with the most anti-LGBTQ bills filed this year. We are the state that's had the most anti-LGBT bills filed since 2017, and we're also the state that has the most to lose."

It's harming the state's "image as a warm and inclusive place," Woolley said.

He said two or three major conventions in Nashville are in the process of being canceled, declining to specify the events because final action has not been taken.

Later Monday, the NCAA weighed in with a warning to Tennessee lawmakers.

"When determining where championships are held, NCAA policy directs that only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination should be selected. We will continue to closely monitor these situations to determine whether NCAA championships can be conducted in ways that are welcoming and respectful of all participants," the NCAA statement reads.

Amazon, which is investing more than $230 million to open an "East Coast hub of operations" in Nashville employing 5,000 people, said in a statement that "we have a long history of supporting equality, and we're opposed to laws that discriminate or encourage discrimination. Amazon strongly encourages Tennessee to revisit any laws that may harm the LGBTQ community so that the state can not only be a premier location for business investment, but also be a leader in diversity and inclusion."

Noting she is a "longtime conservative," Pritzker warned that "Gov. Lee and a majority of the State legislators are creating an environment that will force me to consider moving my family's business out of Tennessee."

Moreover, Pritzker said that because "many families have at least one relative identifying as LGBTQ, I suspect other families will also consider moving out of Tennessee - and, when evaluating it for purposes of domiciling a private trust company, will not choose this state for the same reasons."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.