Parents of LGBTQ children, advocates condemn Tennessee laws targeting the community

NASHVILLE - National and Tennessee LGBTQ leaders as well as parents of transgender students Tuesday condemned bills approved by Republican state lawmakers, the latest ones coming in this year's legislative session to prevent transgender athletes from participating in girls' and women's sports in public K-12 education as well as at the college level.

Attendees at a news conference said it could have been worse during the 2022 session, with Republicans introducing some 20 bills targeting or otherwise affecting the LGBTQ community. Lawmakers wound up sending just three of them on to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who signed them into law.

"This year was a record year," Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders said Tuesday of bills he described as anti-LGBTQ measures introduced by GOP legislators as he spoke at an event in a downtown Nashville church. The event was sponsored by The Table, a LGBTQIA+ centered faith collective committed to the work of social justice and racial equity.

Other participants included a top official with the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based LGBTQ advocacy group.

"Many issues of trans people in athletics, the curriculum, at many points the contents of public school libraries, what pronouns teachers can use and refuse to use for students. It was the full gamut in health care," Sanders said. "Most of these bills did not pass. But there were a few that did."

Among the bills passing this year was Public Chapter 909. It's a follow-up to a 2021 law that prohibits trans athletes from competing in middle and high school teams based on their gender identity. It would strip some state funding from K-12 public schools if they allow transgender youth to participate in girls' sports.

Lee said last year the bill was intended "to preserve women's athletics and ensure fair competition."

A similar measure passed by GOP lawmakers this year and also signed into law by Lee targeted trans athletes competing in public college and university women's sports.

Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, was the Senate sponsor of both bills.

"It was just all about fairness and making sure there was a level playing field for the students and athletes," Hensley said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It was just over the biological differences. It was not against the transgender males but just to make sure the females, especially the female athletes should not have to compete against a biological male who has a natural advantage."

Another bill that passed deals with school libraries. The bill allows family members, staffers or students to challenge the inclusion of books at the local school district level, including libraries.

If the families or others lose out at the local level, the bill establishes an appeals process involving the politically appointed State Textbook Commission, where members would gauge whether the book or material is "inappropriate for the age or maturity level" for students.

The state commission's decision would affect not just that particular school district but all public school districts statewide.

Among participants at Tuesday's roundtable Nashville event was Karen Orsulak from Knoxville, a member of the group Free Mom Hugs.

"My own child had to do virtual school because of Knoxville, Tennessee," Orsulak said. "She wasn't accepted. The teachers wouldn't call her by her preferred name."

But once she graduated and turned 18, she was able to take hormones that had been illegal to prescribe to her when she was still a minor, Orulak said.

"These laws are affecting and they are hurting and they're hurting in my home and they're hurting my child and, thankfully, she is 19 now and she can make her choices." She later added: "For our daughter, her No. 1 thing, and this is awful, her No. 1 thing is she wants to move out of Tennessee."

Reg Calcagno, the national Human Rights Campaign's deputy national campaign director, pointed to a survey by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit group focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth.

It found that 45% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered committing suicide. Sixty percent of them were unable to get mental health care.

A number of bills did not clear the legislature this year.

One bill dealing with LGBTQ issues was promoted by Family Action Council of Tennessee chief David Fowler, a former state senator from Signal Mountain. Fowler, who opposes the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage, unsuccessfully sought to persuade Republican lawmakers to enact a bill establishing a "common law" right to marriage between a "man and a woman" that would be recognized in state law.

It ultimately was shipped off for legislative study over the summer.

Just last week, a federal judge struck down a Tennessee law that sought to force Tennessee businesses and other entities to post warning signs if they had bathrooms with multiple stalls anyone can use.

House Bill 2633 sought to prevent K-12 teachers from being disciplined if they refused to refer to students by their preferred pronoun if the pronoun is not aligned to a student's biological gender at birth. It also had a provision that sought to prevent schools from being sued if teachers refused to use the preferred pronouns of transgender or other students.

The Republican House approved it, but GOP majority lawmakers in the Senate balked. And it never came up for a floor vote.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, sponsor of the Senate's companion bill, said during committee debate that bill's purpose was fairly simple.

"If pronouns express a message, you can't compel somebody to express a message," Bell said. "That's what this is about, this is about compelling a message they may or may not agree with."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, told state Capitol reporters last month as the session ended that there were worries about how President Joe Biden's administration would respond to such a law.

"I think there were some concerns it might trigger a suit from the federal government, and we were concerned about that," McNally said. "And we certainly didn't want to end up paying the people who would be suing us. we didn't feel like we needed to take the risk."

Hensley, the Republican senator from Hohenwald, who was not the primary sponsor of the school bill, said he disagrees with critics on that as well as the student athlete transgender athlete ban.

"I think the General Assembly tries to protect everyone, especially with these athletic bills," Hensley said. "As far as the other, the books in schools, they're not targeting the transgender or [LGBTQ] community."

It's intended to assure parents that their children are exposed to "appropriate" books for their age level and not those they "don't feel" are appropriate, Hensley said.

Hensley also said he believes most books are appropriate, but there were some brought to lawmakers' attention that he and others believed were inappropriate, at least until the student is in high school.

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