Tennessee lawmakers pass new transgender ‘bathroom bill’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers have passed a bill that would put public schools and districts at risk of civil lawsuits if they let transgender students or employees use multi-person bathrooms or locker rooms that do not reflect their gender at birth.

The state Senate voted 21-7 Wednesday in favor of the legislation, which needs at least one more vote before heading to Republican Gov. Bill Lee. The House passed a slightly different version earlier this week.

This action in Tennessee marks the furthest a “bathroom bill” has gotten in any state in years, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The topic drew national notoriety in North Carolina in 2016 when a law limiting transgender bathroom use sparked a wave of backlash, prompting cancelations of major events and some economic expansion plans.

“The distinctive nature of this bill is how far it’s gotten — it’s the furthest bathroom bill to advance so far this year and certainly the furthest any bathroom bill has advanced since 2015/2016,” said Wyatt Ronan, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign.

Like other GOP-led statehouses focusing on culture wars this year, Tennessee lawmakers have advanced several LGTBQ-related measures that critics have slammed as discriminatory. Most notably, Gov. Lee signed a different proposal this year that bars transgender athletes from playing girls’ public high school or middle school sports.

Under the proposed bathroom measure, a student or employee could sue in an effort to claim monetary damages “for all psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered” if school officials allow a transgender person into the bathroom or locker room when others are in there, or if they require staying in the same sleeping quarters as a member of the opposite sex at birth, unless that person is a family member.

The proposal also says schools must try to offer a bathroom or changing facility that is single-occupancy or that is for employees if a student or employee “desires greater privacy when using a multi-occupancy restroom or changing facility” designated for their sex at birth.

Republican Sen. Mike Bell, the bill sponsor, said a middle school in his district has run into an issue over bathroom use.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the bill targets transgender people’s civil rights and could open Tennessee up to lawsuits.

“Folks have been going to the bathroom in schools in Tennessee for generations without any help from this Legislature,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro said. “And they don’t need any help from this Legislature now on this.”

The Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce has led a group of more than 180 businesses of various sizes, including ones as large as Amazon, in opposing the slate of Tennessee bills that target the LGBT community, calling them discriminatory.

Opponents of the bill, including business entities, point to North Carolina’s experience with the enactment of its 2016 version of a “bathroom bill,” which was signed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and, in part, required transgender people to use public bathrooms aligned with the gender on their birth certificate.

Several large corporations and sports leagues relocated events to other states or reconsidered expanding in North Carolina due to the law, which was partially repealed in 2017.

A federal judge eventually approved a consent decree in 2019 between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and transgender plaintiffs that affirms their right to use restrooms matching their gender identity in many public buildings.

In addition to the Tennessee governor’s approval of restrictions on trans athletes, his office has indicated he plans to sign another recently passed bill that focuses on the LGBT community. That one would require school districts to alert parents 30 days in advance of any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and let them opt their student out. The requirement would not apply when a teacher is responding to a student’s question or referring to a historic figure or group.