A version of this article was published in The Tennessean, Voices.
On Friday, January 20th, a gay fourteen year old young man named Phillip Parker hung himself in Gordonsville, Tennessee. Phillip’s parents said they reported the bullying to the high school, but their son’s persecution only continued to the point he felt he could no longer go on. This tragedy comes less than two months after another Middle Tennessee high school student, Jacob Rogers, was taunted by classmates about his sexuality until he also took his own life.
A backdrop to these heartbreaking stories is the Tennessee House of Representatives preoccupation with trying to legislate the state straight. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB229) limits all sexually related instruction to “natural human reproductive science” through the eighth grade. The intent of this bill is not to allow any mention of “gay” in schools, which would presumably include speaking out against bullying gay teens such as Phillip. It is as if we don’t talk about homosexuality, it won’t occur to young people to become gay. (This bill is currently being discussed in subcommittee).
Richard Floyd, a State Representative from Chattanooga, filed a bill that would make it illegal for a transgender person to use a bathroom or dressing room if it’s not for the same gender on their birth certificate. Since you are already not allowed to change the gender on your birth certificate in Tennessee, transgender people would apparently be required to hold it. The “Police the Potty” bill did not get picked up in the State Senate. However, what is unfortunate is Representative’s Floyd’s explanation for the bill:
“It could happen here,” Floyd said. “I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there — I don’t care if he thinks he’s a woman and tries on clothes with them in there — I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry.” With comments like that, Representative Floyd is setting a fine example to bullies across the state.
Finally, and perhaps most shocking, is the “License to Bully” bill (HP1153), which would change the wording in Tennessee’s current state bullying laws to actually protect the bully if he or she is acting from their religious beliefs. David Fowler of the Family Action Council (FACT), who is the driving force behind the bill, said in their December newsletter that he hopes “to make sure [the law] protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality.”
So, in a perverse twist, FACT is trying to protect the religious rights of students to verbally abuse students like Phillip Parker and Jacob Rogers. The idea that our legislature would consider protecting what amounts to "hate speech” is offensive. I’m not sure which religion the Family Action Council is trying to protect, but it’s not Christianity, at least not the version where Jesus condemns judging others and commanded his followers to love their neighbors as themselves.
More details are coming to light about Phillip Parker and the tribulations he faced on an almost daily basis. Jonathan Cole of the Tennessee Equality Project went to Gordonsville to pay his respects. While there, he visited with a former teacher of Phillip, who confirmed bullying took place even in elementary school. She also said he had to listen to anti-gay sermons, and his pastor recently told him to “pray the devil out of him, so he could be straight.” In spite of all this, Phillip is remembered for always smiling and telling his peers how beautiful they were.
Phillip’s grandmother, Ruby Harris, said her grandson told her he felt like a rock was on his chest and he “wanted to take the rock off where he could breathe.” It reminded me of the story in the Gospel of John (7:53 to 8: 11) when Jesus comes across the public stoning of a woman who was accused of being guilty of adultery. The Pharisees ask Jesus what they should do with her, and Jesus tells them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.
I am not equating adultery with a young man trying to figure out his sexual orientation. My point is that Jesus protected the “sinner,” because he knows we are all sinners. He also stood up against a mob of self-righteous bullies. I believe Jesus would make the same stand in our high schools. At least the Pharisees were convicted enough to drop their rocks and go home. It’s not certain what our Tennessee Legislature will do. One can only hope and pray.
Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."