TENNESSEE DIVIDED: LGBTQ Community Perspective

Feb 16, 2018


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (OSBORNE)  --  Jensen Kai Barber-Rhone recently reached a toddler’s developmental milestone when he first used the word “mama.” Jensen and mother Sondra celebrated with a game of tickle on the living room couch.

Jensen actually has two moms, Sondra and Dakerri Barber-Rhone. The two women have been together 14 years and married five years ago. But they chose not to have a child until both could be listed as parents on the birth certificate.

That was made possible by the 2015 Supreme Court decision affirming same sex unions.

Sondra (left) and Dakerri Barber-Rhone along with son Jensen Kai. Barber-Rhone.
Credit WMOT

Dakerri carried Jensen to term after a long, expensive insemination process using donated sperm.

In spite of the challenges, she and Sondra were ready to have a second child. Then two things happened that Dakerri says gives them pause: Donald Trump was elected president, and Tennessee’s Republican controlled State Legislature passed a law clearly aimed at keeping same sex parents from obtaining joint birth certificates.

“You know when Jensen came along we didn’t have any issues, it was…she was automatically able to sign,” Dakerri recalled. “So that was scary just thinking that maybe that would impact in the future us having kids. So those are definitely things that we worry about.”

Worried to the extent that the couple has considered moving out of Tennessee and out of the South. Sondra said Dakerri is torn. She doesn’t want Jensen to grow up where he’ll be harassed because he has two moms, but she hates the idea of abandoning the struggle for equality.

“She’s more of a fighter than I am” Sondra said.  “I’m more like ‘Let’s just pick up and move and go where things’ll be a little bit better.’”

Sondra said they’re considering a move to the State of Maryland, where she’s heard same-sex parents are supported not harassed. Tennessee’s LGBTQ leaders believe, she may have a point.

Chris Sanders leads Tennessee Equality Project, the state’s largest gay rights advocacy group. Sanders said his community has always faced opposition at the state and national levels, but for the first time he’s seeing government policy attacks at the local level.

He notes, for example, that last September the Portland, Tennessee, City Council considered an ordinance designed to end drag shows at a local bar.

Even more troubling than the Portland ban, in Sander’s view, was a recent effort by the Knox County School Board to remove gender and sexual orientation protections from the system’s employment policy.

“I’ve never seen a local government in this state do anything like that, where protections existed, trying to excise them,” Sanders said.

Sanders also cited a growing list of hate incidents. In 2016 a transgender woman had her car set on fire in Clarksville, and a gay Murfreesboro couple found an ugly surprise on their doorstep.

“(They) got a package with a Trump knife” Sanders remembered. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing, but a Trump knife stuck in the package saying ‘Go back to California.’”

Sanders said that while that kind of resistance may cause some to move to more gay friendly states, a growing number of Tennesseans are stepping forward to continue the struggle.

Since President Trump’s election, he says more people are volunteering, donating, and turning out for public protests.

And then there’s the wider response.

“We’re also seeing more allies. Not just LGBT folks, but allies wanting to get involved, saying ‘I know they’re coming for you and I’m going to stand with you,” Sanders said.

This story is part of the WMOT series entitled Tennessee Divided: An exploration of the cultural, racial and political discord across Middle Tennessee and the nation. Use the links included here to explore other stories in the series.