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A Tennessee city abandons its ban on being gay in public

Advocates are still pursuing a lawsuit to have the rule declared unconstitutional.
Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Murfreesboro, Tenn.Jacob Boomsma / Shutterstock

Under pressure from a lawsuit over an anti-LGBTQ city ordinance, officials in a Tennessee city removed language that banned homosexuality in public this month.

You read that right: Murfreesboro's "public decency" ordinance, passed in June, listed various "indecent" behaviors in the Murfreesboro city code, including "homosexuality," alongside "acts of masturbation" and "sexual intercourse." Opponents said it effectively banned being gay in public and contributed to systematic discrimination against the city's LGBTQ communities in a state with an already-sordid record.

In October, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city on behalf of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), accusing it of enacting the ordinance to drive Murfreesboro's LGBTQ community — particularly drag performers — out of public spaces and to prevent TEP from hosting its BoroPride Festival on city grounds.

The removal of "homosexuality" from the list of indecent behaviors went into effect on Nov. 17. Although the ACLU welcomed the change, the group is proceeding with the lawsuit in the hope that courts will declare the ordinance unconstitutional.

In the meantime, local officials have used the "public decency" ordinance to home in on another target: library books.

In August, the Rutherford County Library Board, citing the city's order, removed four books with LGBTQ themes from libraries. Under the guise of enforcing the ordinance, the county instituted a library card system in October to bar minors from checking out books it considers objectionable unless their parent or guardian opts them out of the system. Critics have called it a gross violation of the First Amendment.

More recently, the county board put forward a proposal to remove all books from the library that could possibly violate the ordinance, as journalist Erin Reed reported. Keri Lambert, a local activist, angrily addressed officials at a Nov. 2 meeting: "When, in the history of the world, have the people banning books been the good guys?" she asked.

Tennessee already has one of the worst records on LGBTQ rights, with lawmakers passing increasingly draconian legislation at an accelerated rate this year. State officials have enacted 19 anti-LGBTQ laws since 2015, according to the Human Rights Campaign, more than any other state in the country.