Voices: I’m a gay man and, for five months, my life was illegal in my home state

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For five months this year, I was illegal in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

The city council passed an ordinance in June “banning ‘indecent behavior,’ including ‘indecent exposure, public indecency, lewd behavior, nudity or sexual conduct’” on city property, The New Republic reported. That ordinance refers specifically to a section of the city code defining “sexual conduct” to include “homosexuality”.

This means that for several months, I could have been arrested for holding hands with a man I love in one of my state’s biggest cities.

As of this week, I am finally free to be gay in Murfreesboro again. The city council voted on Thursday to remove homosexuality from its definition of “sexual conduct”.

To paraphrase The West Wing’s Ainsley Hayes, I am horrified there was ever reason to think I wasn’t equal. However, this is yet another legislative gay-bashing we’ve experienced in Tennessee; earlier this year, the state legislature passed bans on drag shows and trans healthcare for minors. I reported for The Independent on the material and psychological ramifications the drag ban was having before it even went into effect. And do not even get me started on the treatment of the Tennessee Three.

Living in Tennessee is a paradox. On the one hand, there are elected officials at every level of government trying to dehumanize, degrade, and deny you basic civil rights and liberties. On the other, there are the many wonderful people who don’t give a damn you’re gay. Unfortunately, many of them also don’t give a damn that their elected officials are oppressing you for it.

It gives me whiplash, and a lot of us in the state are feeling at our wit’s end. You think having a Speaker of the House who thinks gay sex should be a crime, or sits on a board that says monkeypox is a punishment for it, is bad? Try living in a state run by nothing but Mike Johnsons.

Tennessee is not alone. Local communities across America are facing reactionary attempts to ban LGBT+ books; more than half of the books people attempted to ban in 2022 feature LGBT+ themes. Last year, a library in Jamestown, Michigan, was actually defunded because it would not censor LGBT+ books.

Things aren’t any better at the state level. Florida has become so hostile to LGBT+ people that many of its queer residents are fleeing. In Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state’s constitution protecting abortion rights, Republican legislators are attempting to usurp the authority of the courts so that they may interpret the law, which is really just Republican for “ignore the law.”

As a child growing up out of state, Tennessee was my happy place, a place where I was surrounded by family and community. Now, it’s the place I worry I’ll be thrown in jail for kissing my boyfriend goodbye. (If I had a boyfriend, that is. Great, now it’s also the state that reminds me I’m too single to be oppressed by its homophobia.)

How did it come to this? I have not met a single anti-gay person since I moved here in 2019. Sure, the old man down the hall from me would probably cringe if he saw me making out with a man, but he’d soon get over it. Because he is kind and good and wants everyone to be happy, something he told me so himself. He just doesn’t want to walk into the hall and see Queer as Folk on his doorstep.

Ordinances about public decency aren’t necessarily the problem. It is that one group – homosexuals (using Murfreesboro’s archaic language) – were specifically included in that definition. “Homosexuality” is not a behavior to be regulated by law. It is an immutable trait core to the identity of an individual.

Tennesseans are not nasty people. But there is a nasty minority who, because of gerrymandering and voters’ lack of information, are able to govern us.

States are the laboratories of democracy. They are also the laboratories of democratic decay. We in Tennessee – not just LGBT+ people, but all of us – need the country to pay attention. We need the national media to keep their eyes on us. We need everybody to sound the alarm.

The ACLU and BoroPride, which organizes the pride festival in Murfreesboro, did that when they sued in federal court. But they can’t do it on their own. We must not for a second, let alone four months, let it be illegal to be gay.