My Chattanooga: My Queer Past, Our Queer Future

Last week I was dispatched to Chattanooga, Tennessee for the fourth LGBTQ ballot measure campaign I’ve worked on since coming to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2009. But, unlike my time in Pocatello Idaho; Royal Oak, Michigan; and Rochester, Minnesota, the experience of working on the Yes Chattanooga campaign was unique for me because the battleground was my hometown.

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The outcome of the campaign was, of course, disappointing – we lost, which means from now on it will be perfectly legal for city workers to be fired or not hired on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Even those who keep their jobs will also now not be able to offer their benefits to their same-sex domestic partners. But, when I really think about it, my overriding feeling is not so much disappointment as confusion.

Of course there are many reasons not to be confused about this outcome – the early polling numbers, the fact that Tennessee arguably has the worst legal environment for LGBTQ people of any state in the US – but what remains befuddling for me is the extent to which this feels contrary to my own experience growing up in Chattanooga and the nearby town of Signal Mountain.

I count myself lucky whenever I tell my story of growing up and coming out. My multiracial family has always been fiercely supportive. My mom has even gone so far as to make transgender justice a part of her work in the world, co-founding a local peer support group and making sure that trans people have access to the mental health provider letters they need to get hormone replacement therapy and surgeries.

Even as a very young child, I felt well-held in Chattanooga. I got to attend a kindergarten and pre-K where my language arts teacher was a gay man who provided me with a role model from a very young age. I met my first gay male friend when I was six years old and the benefits of having another little boy as feminine as I was have undoubtedly stuck with me through today.

Later, when we went to high school, I came out at my all-boys Christian school and never had a lack of guys to pal around with and date. Plus I was able to assemble a group of friends that included lesbian and bi women, trans women and trans guys, as well as all manner of other queers experimenting with a range of articulations of their genders and their desires.

So I think it’s easy to see why I can’t cast Chattanooga as a place entirely unfriendly to LGBTQ people despite this electoral loss. However, many of the city’s queer residents have not enjoyed the same love and support I did. Also, I know firsthand the problems of racism and segregation that Chattanooga continues to struggle with.

And despite our loss, there was incredibly important work accomplished during this campaign to educate residents of Chattanooga about LGBTQ lives. Leading a diverse team of LGBTQ individuals and straight allies from Chattanooga and nearby areas in having conversations with their friends, family members, and strangers at their doors has undeniably changed the culture of Chattanooga for the better. Also, the work done by all the campaign organizers and the field director, Reece Rathgen, truly touched the lives of volunteers like Lee, Ty, and Jill, who learned to take leadership of their own individual liberation. I know that all our collective work left Chattanooga queerer than it was before.

Jack Harrison, E-Learning Manager, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Academy for Leadership and Action