Local LGBTQ community members speak about discrimination

Brandon Paykamian • Nov 26, 2018 at 5:03 PM

In the midst of a recent surge of “alt-right” ideology in today’s political climate, local members of the LGBTQ community who spoke with the Johnson City Press voiced more than a few anxieties about human rights and people’s well-being in general, but some saw promise in the outpouring of support demonstrated two months ago at Johnson City’s first pride festival.

In October, President Donald Trump’s administration first began considering defining gender purely in biological terms as immutable and unchangeable from birth, sparking criticism from many in the local transgender community who believe these moves are nothing short of state-sanctioned “erasure” that will eliminate protections for transgender Americans. 

After the Department of Health and Human Services’ memo was leaked and then published in New York Times on Oct. 21, Trans Lifeline, a transgender suicide hotline, said on Instagram that operators were handling an unusually high amount of calls — and twice as many first-time callers — after the news broke.

“I think this administration is dead-set on pushing LGBT folk, especially trans/non-binary folk, back in the closet,” local resident Sylvann Fox said. “Being a non-binary person in a very conservative state makes it difficult to feel comfortable being myself.” 

The results of the Tennessee’s Senate election worried Fox, who criticized Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, for her anti-LGBTQ policy positions. 

“I know she has no intention of protecting my rights or the rights of other LGBT folk,” Fox said. “I feel like this administration has emboldened bigoted people because I’ve noticed a definite uptick in people sending me messages or even making comments in public about my gender or sexuality, going so far as to call me an ‘it’ or ‘thing’ — something I hadn’t experienced until recently.”

Fox’s concerns are in line with many in the local LGBTQ community who say the current political climate has presented some roadblocks to much of the progress made combating homophobia and transphobia in recent years prior.

Despite a steady rise in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2016, TriPride Parade and Festival Founder George Chamoun said he believes the local LGBTQ community is continually moving forward with resolve. He said the September LGBTQ festival — the first of its kind in the region — is indicative of positive progress when “looking at the bigger picture.”

“There’s no question that there’s been a huge surge of divisive language coming from D.C. and social media. I try to look beyond that noise to look at what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “On the local level, the festival last month had a historic turnout of around 10,000 people. I don’t think it was a coincidence. They displayed a massive show of unity, and in part, it was fueled by this divisive rhetoric. Ten-thousand of us showed up and there were only six protesters.

“The majority of people are coming together. In addition to the solidarity from the community, the festival received a lot of support from businesses,” he continued. “It was a message to me that the Tri-Cities is a safe place for LGBT people to work and build a happy life. That was my takeaway.”

But the rise in hate crimes nationally, as well as local incidents during the past year — including an incident where a cow carcass and nails were dropped off in one pro-LGBTQ Tree Street resident’s driveway — has disturbed Chamoun and other members of the local LGBTQ community.

“I’m not going to lie, that’s the most discouraging thing I’ve seen — the rise of hate crimes and divisive language,” he said.

Local resident Emma Frye said the rise in hate crimes and hostility against the LGBTQ population — particularly the trans community — from political and legislative leaders in the country are often still based on people’s interpretations of religion, which presents a problem in the heart of the Bible Belt.

“The constant attacks on trans lives by this administration endangers trans lives for no purpose. Trans people do not disrupt society. These attacks are increasingly framed as religious based, which ignores the many religious institutions which embrace us,” Frye said. “The increasing amounts of hate and vitriol which is being targeted at multiple segments of our society is what is disruptive, and putting ever-increasing numbers of people in danger.”