A City in Tennessee Banned Public Homosexuality—and We All Missed It

A city in Tennessee is using a recently passed ordinance essentially prohibiting homosexuality in public to try to ban library books that might violate the new rules.

Murfreesboro passed an ordinance in June banning “indecent behavior,” including “indecent exposure, public indecency, lewd behavior, nudity or sexual conduct.” As journalist Erin Reed first reported, this ordinance specifically mentions Section 21-72 of the city code. The city code states that sexual conduct includes homosexuality.

Anyone who violates the new ordinance is barred from hosting public events or selling goods and services at public events for two years. Anyone who violates the ordinance “in the presence of minors” is barred for five years.

An ACLU-backed challenge to the ordinance has already been launched, but that hasn’t stopped city officials from implementing the measure. Last Monday, the Rutherford County steering committee met to discuss removing all books that might potentially violate the ordinance from the public library. The resolution was met with widespread outcry from city residents.

“When have the people who ban books ever been the good guys?” local activist Keri Lambert demanded during the Monday county meeting.

Murfreesboro city officials have already used the ordinance to ban four books that discuss LGBTQ themes. In August, the county library board pulled the books Flamer, Let’s Talk About It, Queerfully and Wonderfully Made, and This Book Is Gay.

The board also implemented a new library card system that categorizes books into certain age groups. When it takes effect next year, children and teenagers will only be able to check out books that correspond to their age group; they will need permission from a parent or guardian to check out “adult” books.

Library director Rita Shacklett worried in August that the new rules would prevent students from accessing books they need for a class. She explained that many classic high school books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, are now classified as “adult.”

It’s unclear if the county steering committee plans to pull books such as the A Song of Ice and Fire series, which includes multiple depictions of heterosexual sexual conduct.

Murfreesboro’s new ordinance is part of a much larger wave of attacks on LGBTQ rights in Tennessee and the rest of the country. In the past year, the so-called Volunteer State became the first state to try to ban drag performances. That law was overturned in court.

In March, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow people to refuse to perform a marriage if they disagree with it, essentially gutting marriage equality. The bill was introduced in the Senate but deferred until next year.