Since Tennessee Republicans passed a bill prohibiting transgender student athletes from competing on teams that affirm their gender identity, at least three conferences have backed out of coming to the state. Oracle, the tech giant expected to bring thousands of new jobs to Nashville, joined 86 other businesses in signing an open letter against the legislation.
While it’s doubtful Oracle will back out of the relocation deal, canceled conferences alone could cost the state millions in visitor spending, hotel room purchases and more, says Joe Woolley, CEO of the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
Woolley says three conferences have contacted him about pulling out of the state since SB228/HB3 passed in March, which will cause millions in lost revenue for the city of Nashville. Woolley says he can’t make the specific conferences’ names public yet as each needs time to plan where they’ll take their attendees, but that a similar event happened when Tennessee passed a bill that allowed counselors to deny LGBTQ+ clients based on religious grounds in 2016. Woolley says the fallout caused three conferences to back out then, costing Tennessee 7,000 room nights and $3.4 million in direct visitor spending. Other conferences that had considered Tennessee but chose another state due to the bill cost the state eleven bookings, 116,000 room nights and $66.4 million in direct visitor spending.
This year, Woolley says the economic impact of the three lost conferences will be similar, but could exceed $3 million because market rates are higher now than in 2016. Woolley says even more recently, 14 conventions cancelled their events in January 2020 after Republicans passed a bill that allowing adoption agencies to refuse to work with same-sex couples. Woolley says that COVID-19 pandemic closures canceled all conventions last year, so the full extent of that bill’s passage fallout can’t be tracked.
But with conventions making up as much as 40 percent of the Nashville tourism economy and with one third of tourism business produced out of Nashville according to Woolley, the anti-LGBTQ+ bills still on the legislative calendar this year could have devastating effects on the entire state.
Woolley says he fields calls from business and industry leaders who are worried about bringing LGBTQ+ employees to the state. Woolley says he can tell executives that Nashville has a strong, inclusive community, but the rest of the state and Tennessee’s legislators aren’t always the same.
“The one thing they’re concerned about is discrimination, specifically LGBTQ issues,” Woolley says. “Is it safe? Are their [LGBT] kids going to be safe in schools?”
Woolley says business and industry is a strong tool for combating discriminatory legislation and that Oracle’s decision to sign an open letter against current and upcoming legislation sends a clear message. The Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, released a statement about the open letter and the dozens of companies that have signed already. Although corporations like Amazon have donated thousands of dollars to GOP legislators in Tennessee in the past, they also joined Oracle in opposing discriminatory bills.
“We are deeply concerned by the bills being introduced in state houses across the country that single out LGBTQ individuals—many specifically targeting transgender youth—for exclusion,” the letter reads.
HRC state legislative director Kate Oakley says she hopes companies that have donated to Republican candidates could then go to those legislators and have a real effect when they oppose a piece of legislation. She says companies have a lot of leverage in state politics, which is important because Tennessee is on track to pass the most anti-LGBTQ+ legislation this year in history. In addition to the transgender athlete ban, Oakley says Gov. Bill Lee could sign the newest bathroom bill and a bill requiring parents to sign off on mentions of gender identity or sexual orientation in school curriculums. There are two other bills, including one that bans gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth, not far from the governor’s desk.
“Tennessee is poised to be a leader in anti-LGBTQ discrimination this year,” Oakley says. “If all those pieces of legislation pass, [Tennessee] will have passed more than any other state in the country.”
Oakley says some of the legislation began in states around the country last year, important to point out because some legislators claim the 250 bills the HRC is tracking are in response to President Biden’s administration. It’s also worth noting that Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed the same bill prohibiting transgender healthcare that may pass in Tennessee. Governor Hutchinson said in a statement to news outlets the healthcare bill went “too far,” and Oakley says this was the result of Gov. Hutchinson speaking with constituents who would be affected by a lack of health coverage.
In Tennessee however, Oakley says legislators seem to know little about transgender youth or the bills that affect them. Dr. Laura Edwards-Leeper, PhD and licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with gender diverse and transgender youth, says legislators should think about the severe physical and mental effects discriminatory legislation will have on this vulnerable population.
“These bills would have a profoundly detrimental effect on transgender youth, many of whom rely on the availability of medical treatments to prevent devastating mental health problems and ensure long-term quality of life,” Edwards-Leeper, founding psychologist in the first pediatric clinic for transgender youth in the U.S., said in an email statement to Tennessee Lookout. “It is critical that lawmakers create policies based on science to ensure the well-being of these vulnerable young people.”
Tennessee is poised to be a leader in anti-LGBTQ discrimination tis year. If all those pieces of legislation pass, (Tennessee) will have passed more than any other state in the country. – Kate Oakley, state director, Human Rights Campaign
Oakley and Woolley both say the GOP targets transgender individuals because they’re a superminority in the LGBTQ+ community and make an easy target. Woolley says he’s taken calls from cisgender lesbians who have no problem with the transgender athelete ban; even in the LGBTQ+ community, trans people are often “left behind,” says Woolley.
Even if legislators aren’t listening to transgender constituents’ needs, some businesses are. Separate from the HRC letter, Woolley and the LGBT Chamber of Commerce wrote an annual open letter that more than 180 businesses have signed, including the NCAA. The NCAA Board of Governors separately released a statement speaking out against discrimination and said that NCAA policy directs that “only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination should be selected.”
Jennifer Pritzker, the world’s first transgender billionare whose family started the Hyatt Hotels Group, also released a statement threatening to take business out of the state, and music executive Mike Curb could cut philanthropic investment. Woolley says the economic toll will be extreme, but that business is sometimes the only way to stand up to extreme right-wing politics. He says Oracle and other businesses who take their companies elsewhere are clear about where they want to invest time, jobs and money.
“Oracle is sending a clear message that businesses do not want discrimination in Tennessee. I hope Lee and the legislature are listening,” Woolley says. “If you discriminate you cannot be pro-business.”