Tennessee bills target gender identity and expression

John Partipilo, Tennessee Lookout / At a "slay the hate" rally in Nashville last week, hundreds came out to oppose recent legislation they view as anti-LGBTQ. The event was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign.
John Partipilo, Tennessee Lookout / At a "slay the hate" rally in Nashville last week, hundreds came out to oppose recent legislation they view as anti-LGBTQ. The event was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign.

A string of legislation related to gender identity, transgender people and gender expression is moving through the Tennessee statehouse.

Two bills, which restrict drag performances and gender-affirming health care for young people, have already been signed into law. Proponents say the laws will shield children from sexually explicit content and from making health care decisions at too young an age.

Drag performance restrictions, which ban shows with sexual content in public or where children are present, are set to go into effect April 1.

Local authorities in Chattanooga say they haven't received guidance from the state on how to enforce the law, though Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp issued a statement last week saying drag queens could be prosecuted for performing in front of children.

Under the new restrictions placed on gender-related care, people under the age of 18 will not be able to receive treatments including gender-affirming surgery, hormone therapy or puberty blockers. The bill allows about a year, through March 2024, for minors currently on those treatments to stop using them.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga rally calls on Gov. Lee to veto bills limiting drag shows, transgender procedures for minors)

At least 10 bills related to gender, gender expression or gender-affirming medical care have been filed in Tennessee this session.

"This has been building since about 2016 on," said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, in a phone interview Thursday. "They have certainly widened the scope of how far the legislation is willing to go."

Several other bills that would place restrictions on gender identity and expression, particularly for young Tennesseeans, are still being discussed at the Capitol.


House Bill 30 / Senate Bill 841, sponsored by Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald.

Drag performers may need to obtain permits to be paid for shows if a bill that passed the House last week makes it to the governor's desk.

House Bill 30 would expand restrictions on drag shows that Gov. Bill Lee signed into law earlier this month. It also reiterates the restrictions on minors attending drag shows.

Doggett told House members March 6 the bill would only apply to people performing in a way that is harmful to children.

"Over this last year there was adult-themed entertainment in the county in which I reside, where minors were present," Doggett said during a February hearing on the bill. "They were placing dollar bills into the underwear of performers. And so our district attorney looked at our current statutes that we have on the books ... and said that there was nothing to prevent that type of activity from occurring."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA Wamp says drag performers will only be prosecuted for performing sexually around kids)

As written, the legislation would also require permits for paid go-go dancers, exotic dancers, topless dancers and "other similar entertainers," as well as "male or female impersonators."

Requiring permits would also create a database of drag performers, which could be dangerous depending on who can access it, Chattanooga Pride representative and performer Noah Corbin previously told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"I don't think it's a good idea, especially for a community that's already vulnerable," Corbin said in a phone call last week.


HB 239 / SB 1440, sponsored by Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, and Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield.

Tennessee's definition of sex could change if a bill that passed in the state Senate makes it through the House.

House Bill 239 would define "sex" as "a person's immutable," or unchangeable, "biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth and evidence of a person's biological sex."

"It is intentionally done to exclude trans people," said Sanders, with the Tennessee Equality Project.

The bill is on pause in the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee, since it could cause Tennessee to lose federal money for state education and health departments. The Department of Education reported the bill could put the department at risk of legal action and of possibly losing more than $1 billion in funding, according to a memo.

If passed, the legislation could also endanger more than $750 million in federal money for the Department of Health if it is found to violate funding requirements, the memo states.

Tennessee now allows people to change the gender marker on identifying documents, including state IDs, if they can prove they've gone through gender-affirming surgery or have a court order.

  photo  John Partipilo, Tennessee Lookout / U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaks on Oct. 21 at a rally in Nashville sponsored by media personality Matt Walsh to oppose certain medical treatments for transgender youth. Laws have since passed banning the treatments.


HB 1215 / SB 1339, sponsored by Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

A bill co-sponsored by Tennessee's lieutenant governor and House speaker would ban health insurance companies that contract with TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, from providing insurance reimbursement or coverage for gender-affirming health care.

That would mean any organization that wants to distribute in-state Medicaid payments for Tennessee patients could not offer hormone treatments, puberty blockers or gender-affirmation surgery, even for patients who live and use insurance in other states.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Lt. Gov. McNally accused of hypocrisy after posting heart and fire emojis on gay performer's Instagram)

Those services aren't currently being offered at the managed care organizations the bill would affect, a memo states.

The bill is awaiting committee hearings in both chambers.

Sen. Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, also introduced Senate Bill 1469 to clarify that prescribing hormone treatment for minors is not "standard practice" for young people identifying with a gender different than their sex assigned at birth. That bill has stalled without hearings.

Another similar bill aimed at restricting gender-related healthcare for minors, Senate Bill 5, was filed by Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, in November but has not been heard by a committee.


SB 466 / HB 1269, sponsored by Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, and Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would protect public school teachers and administrators who refuse to use students' preferred pronouns if they don't align with the students' biological sex.

If passed, the bill could cause Tennessee to lose nearly $1.3 billion in federal education money, according to a memo from legislative staff. It could violate the federal Title IX code, updated last year to include sexuality and gender identity in its definition of sex-based discrimination.

The bill is set to be heard in the Senate Education Committee next week. It has been placed on hold on the House side because of the financial implications.

Cochran also sponsored a similar bill last year, which failed without a committee vote.

As written, the legislation would protect teachers and administrators from punishment or lawsuits if they choose to use pronouns consistent with the sex on a student's birth certificate or other document.

"Teachers and employees of public schools and LEAs (local education agencies) do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression while at work," the bill says. "A teacher and employee of a public school or LEA should never be compelled to affirm a belief with which the teacher or employee disagrees."


HB 306 / SB 1237, sponsored by Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald.

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law that penalizes public schools that allow transgender student-athletes to compete in girls' sports.

Now, another bill moving through the statehouse would extend that to private schools that participate in competitions overseen by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, or TSSAA.

"This is a bill that seeks to protect girls' athletics," Bulso said during a February committee hearing on the bill.

Bulso said the state has the authority to make laws about private schools since the TSSAA was classified as a state actor in a 2001 opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court. The nonprofit association runs sporting events for public and private schools across the state.

One private girls' high school in Davidson County, Harpeth Hall School, announced last summer it would accept anyone identifying as female, Bulso said.

"I just think this, and last year's piece of legislation, is a solution just in desperate need of a problem," Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, said during a hearing in the House K-12 Subcommittee.

Sanders said that passing House Bill 306 may set a precedent for the state to further regulate private schools.

"It makes you wonder what else they can use that for in private schools," he said by phone Thursday. "That's an extreme mechanism used to hit the private sector."


HB 1411 / SB 1117, sponsored by Rep. Monty Fritts, R-Kingston, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma.

A bill that would require parents to give explicit consent for their children to participate in certain activities and lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation is being heard next week in the House Education Administration Committee.

House Bill 1411 passed the Senate Education Committee last week.

Fritts said during a committee hearing the bill would create a standardized process for parental consent across the state. Right now, he said, some districts take a lack of communication from parents as implicit consent.

One parent and educator spoke in opposition to the bill during that hearing, saying it could prevent children from participating in clubs or activities that don't align with their parents' beliefs. For example, she said, a student with Democratic parents could not be allowed to attend a Young Republicans gathering.

SB 620 / HB 1414, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County.

Another bill aimed at protecting parents' rights, Senate Bill 620, was sent to committees in both chambers in early February, but has not been heard. That bill explicitly also mentions sexual orientation and gender identity.

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.

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