Sara Snoddy, Studio M staff
Morgan Hunlen, 21, is just one of several transgender students at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Although she’s no stranger to battling video game foes, the quiet Business and Aerospace major from Georgia never dreamed she’d have to stand up to her government until anti-LGBT legislation started to become a very real threat to her and her fellow students.
On April 18, Representative Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) and Senator Mike Bell’s (R-Riceville) House Bill 2414 was taken off the table for one year. The decision comes after State Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued an opinion that a discriminatory law would threaten federal Title XI educational funds.
“These bills are unnecessary,” Hunlen says. “The simple fact of the matter is that they hurt trans people the most. If you are a transgender girl or guy who had just started transitioning, you are the most likely person to be called out when using the restroom.”
A Generation Progress poll suggests that 65 percent of millennials support nondiscrimination laws for the LGBT community. Some Southern Universities like University of North Carolina and MTSU are actively accommodating and protecting LGBT students by placing gender-neutral bathrooms on campus to make the college experience less stressful for transgender students at this time. Hunlen herself has aided with their implementation at MTSU.
‘Not just a transgender issue’
Nashville is a hub city, and it’s also secretly become a haven for millennials, women entrepreneurs and startup businesses. According to a 2015 study by the Kauffman Foundation, Tennessee’s capital has the second-highest rate of young small-business owners and the third-highest rate of female small-business owners in the country.
RealtyTrac also revealed that Davidson County growth rate for millennials rose 37.1 percent between 2007 and 2013, with millennials making up about 30 percent of the population by 2013.
“Unfortunately some [legislators] have focused all their energy on these discriminatory bills, and, when the budget is decreased because of these bills, all MTSU students will pay higher tuition,” says MTSU Lambda faculty adviser William Langston. “You’re going to pay. You’re not going to get a job because someone did not come to Tennessee.”
Of course, that “someone” is complex, whether it means businesses, industries, corporations, performers or investors.
Discriminatory bills: Bad for business?
A Forbes report in 2013 ranked the Middle Tennessee region sixth in a list of the best big cities for jobs in 2014, creating 823,000 jobs in 2013 alone.
While income tax is a contentious issue in states like Tennessee, which has none but requires residents to pay a “hall tax,” the state’s corporate tax rate is just 6 percent, in the middle at 25th in the nation. State officials like State Governor Bill Haslam use this and other tax incentives as a way to attract businesses.
“We’ve cultivated this atmosphere that we’re business friendly,” says MTSU associate professor of finance, Sean Salter. “Right now Tennessee is pretty attractive to businesses.”
According to an Institute of International Education report, during 2014 Tennessee exported over $41.8 billion in goods and services to foreign markets, approximately $7.4 billion of which was transportation equipment. In the same year, 8,436 international students were enrolled in Tennessee colleges and universities and contributed nearly $242 million to its economy.
Music City earns significant revenue through the entertainment industry and anti-LGBT bills could also pose a specific threat to Tennessee’s ability to attract musicians and performers. Lately Southern states have seen a slew of artists canceling concerts and engagements where a bill has been passed, such as when Bruce Springsteen canceled an April 10 show in Greensboro, North Carolina.
According to monthly revenue collections, Nashville’s Music City Center earned over $14 million in the 2014 fiscal year through tourist accommodation taxes alone.
“All that progress has been a significant investment that the state has made,” says Salter. But these anti-LGBT bills could very well unravel it all.
“Safety is paramount”
Hunlen, who is approaching graduation, is particularly concerned about safety for young transgender men and women, saying the issue is “paramount.” A Human Rights Campaign report documented 21 transgender homicide victims in 2015, many of whom were people of color.
“I think people have been very concerned about increased scrutiny, increased level of anxiety or stress; there’s literature that documents that minority stress does have a negative effect on people’s health,” says Terri Phoenix, director of the UNC LGBTQ Center.
Students in North Carolina are currently feeling this “chilling effect” just a month after House Bill 2 passed.
“LGBT people feel that the state is clearly saying, ‘You are not welcome here,'” says Phoenix.
Even though Tennessee’s latest bill has only been put off for a year, the chance of it still being passed is a threat that exists to the LGBT community. In addition, on April 27, Gov. Haslam signed Senate Bill 1556 into law that allows therapists and counselors to reject LGBT clients. Haslam could not be reached for comment on either Senate Bill 1556 or House Bill 2414.
Regardless of any individual state’s legislation, discrimination is pervasive in the South as a whole at this time, and many young members of the LGBT community are fearing for their well-being as much as their rights.
Says Hunlen: “To be completely honest, I feel like transgender people are being treated like punching bags.”