NASHVILLE — The father of a gay college student, whose brutal 1998 murder in Wyoming triggered a national debate over hate crimes, warned Wednesday that Tennessee lawmakers' legislation and comments targeting gays encourages harassment.
Dennis Shepard made the comments at a state Capitol news conference where he spoke out against several bills.
He also spoke out against recent comments made by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, regarding transgender people seeking to use public restrooms and store dressing rooms.
"The comment about stomping transgender people -- that does encourage it [harassment]," Shepard said. "What it does, it says, 'Well, nobody's going to do anything.' It creates a policy of it's open season. That's what happened to Matt."
Matthew Shepard, 21, was tied to a fence and beaten to death by two men he met at a bar. According to news accounts, they were motivated by his sexual orientation. Both are serving life sentences.
Floyd recently made the "stomp" comment when he discussed his bill with the Times Free Press. His bill makes it a misdemeanor for transgender persons to use a public restroom or dressing room if the sex listed on their birth certificate differs from that designated for the facility.
He said if he was around any transgender person trying to enter rest room or dressing room where his wife or daughters were, "I'd just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry."
Shortly after those remarks, his Senate sponsor, Bo Watson, yanked his version of the bill, which Watson said he introduced as a courtesy.
Speaking earlier on Wednesday, Floyd was unapologetic.
"I'm not anti-anything. I'm pro-family," he said. "And if somebody wants to condemn me for stating what I would do to protect my family, let 'em have at it. Listen, I haven't lost one minute of sleep over it and don't intend to."
But Floyd, who notes he has been lambasted by critics and even received death threats, said if he had made similar statements, "they'll be screaming from the White House to the outhouse."
He said he has been unable to find another Senate sponsor to replace Watson.
Gay activists also cite two other bills they contend encouraged bullying of two gay teenagers in Middle Tennessee, who later committed suicide.
One of the other bills cited would change the state's anti-bullying law. It is promoted by former state Sen. David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain, who now heads the Christian conservative group Family Action Council of Tennessee.
Fowler says it seeks to protect the religious liberty and free speech rights of conservative students to disagree publicly about homosexuality provided they do not harm or threaten to harm fellow students.
Gay critics call it a "license to bully." Fowler told reporters Wednesday he hopes to address such concerns and has solicited input from the Tennessee Equality Project, a gay activist group, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee.
"We're adding some provisions that I hope will strengthen the law, that will make sure that when the bullying reports are being made and are corroborated by other students that they're not dismissed or not followed up on," Fowler said.
But Fowler said the issue is dealing with bullying in any form and not establishing special classes of people.
ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said there may be agreement on some points such as setting requirements for dealing with bullying. But she said specific categories of people, including gays, need designation for protection.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said the state doesn't need to going about fostering anti-gay sentiment.
"Obviously, that's not the environment we want to set up in Tennessee," he said. "I think there's better things for us to focus on this year."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...