Right now, Grayson Fritts and Craig Northcott are making headlines for choosing to discriminate (or advocating for worse) against the LGBTQ community. This is an abomination, but these ideas are not exactly news.
Consider this: prior to 1989, Tennessee law labeled “sodomy” a crime against nature and declared it a felony. If convicted, you would go to prison for years. You would lose your right to vote, serve on a jury, hold certain jobs, maintain certain licenses, become a lawyer, get student loans, live certain places – forever.
The description of this serious offense was “carnal copulation between two human beings, per anus, or carnal copulation by a human being in any manner with a beast.”
Since then, this statute has been declared unconstitutional. Same-sex marriage has been legalized. The rights that heterosexual couples take for granted have been given to same-sex married couples at long last.
THAT WAS JUST FOUR YEARS AGO.
In my decades of family law practice with Knox County judges, I have generally detected little or no bias against same sex couples who seek divorces, orders of protection or adoptions. In fact, I am proud of our Knox County judiciary. They sometimes push the envelope to enforce equal rights, even when they may be punished by Knox County voters for doing so. The problem is, obtaining an Order of Protection comes later. Often, survivors must first report violent incidents to police.
My heterosexual and cisgender clients tell me that when they report an incident with their partner, the responding police are respectful, polite, and one of them gets arrested. That is the correct response to a domestic violence call, per law.
By contrast, my LGBTQ clients uniformly tell me that their claims are not taken seriously. They live through the nightmare of calling for help when their partner just broke their nose or shoved them through a coffee table. But they later report a less-than-positive experience with the officers responding to the case.
I RECEIVE BETWEEN ONE AND THREE LGBTQ DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CLIENTS PER YEAR.
I cannot recall any of these clients ever reporting that their batterer was arrested when they called the police. Instead, I hear from my female-presenting clients that the issue was treated as a harmless cat fight. From my more stereotypically feminine but male-presenting clients, I hear that they are treated like “sissies.”
I can’t know what is going through the mind of an individual officer in the moment he makes the complex judgment call that any domestic violence issue requires. But this is such a universal experience.
It appears to me that if there is any way for certain officers to identify the combatants as “girls” or “girly,” then they see no real risk of harm and do not make the arrest. Thus, lesbians don’t typically get arrested because the officer perceives the altercation as a harmless cat fight, despite the blood and bruises. Feminine men do not typically get arrested because officers seem to see a harmless cat fight, despite the destroyed furniture and holes in the walls.
These same officers, when faced with a more traditionally masculine man beating up a woman, don’t hesitate to make that arrest. Perhaps it’s because the action feeds their paternalistic impulse to protect women.
IT’S SEEN AS HEROIC TO PROTECT A WOMAN. LESS SO, IN CERTAIN CIRCLES, TO PROTECT A GAY MAN.
Individuals like Grayson Fritts and Craig Northcott uphold this perceived right to discriminate based on sexual orientation and/or gender expression by refusing to do their jobs. (To be clear – that “right” is a myth.) They may hold whatever hateful views they wish, but they may not selectively enforce laws based on the gender expression or sexual orientation of those they encounter on the job.
If you aren’t yet familiar with these names, here’s some context. On June second of this year, the first Sunday of Pride Month, Knox County Sheriff’s Department officer Grayson Fritts stood up in front of his church and called LBGTQ people “freaks” and “animals.” He said that the government should declare homosexuality a capital offense – meaning, the government should kill people for being gay. He said, “God has instilled the power of civil government to send the police in 2019 out to the LGBT freaks and arrest them and have a trial for them, and if they are convicted, then they are to be put to death.” He encouraged attacks at Pride events.
This man has spent the last thirty years on the police force. I doubt he did much to enforce orders of protection in same-sex relationships.
Just prior, a Coffee County District Attorney named Craig Northcott announced that he would not prosecute domestic violence cases involving gay or lesbian couples. Northcott reasoned that he was elected to use his discretion to prosecute some cases and not others. He claimed that domestic assault is prosecuted in order to protect the “sanctity of marriage.” But, he says, same-sex marriages are invalid (in fact, they are not). Therefore, he says, prosecuting those cases is not his responsibility. This is the same lawyer who compares Muslims to the Ku Klux Klan and various Aryan Nation hate groups. He has refused to apologize for his words.
IT’S HARD TO WATCH.
Hard to see that in 2019, an elected official uses his office to enforce legal protections for some people, but not others. Why does an officer, sworn to protect and serve, think he gets to pick which people he protects? Why does a district attorney think he can use his office to selectively enforce the law? Fritts and Northcott are unquestionably using their positions in the community to discriminate. That they feel justified in doing so is absurd.
On the other hand, I am proud of my community’s reaction. The outrage over Fritts’ sermon is receiving national attention from outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times and others. Meanwhile, over 200 attorneys immediately petitioned the Board of Professional Responsibility to investigate Northcott for violations of lawyers’ ethics rules. A separate petition calling for his resignation has garnered over 20,000 signatures. Northcott will likely receive censure for this. He will likely lose his job, and maybe even his law license. Good riddance.
The participation in our justice system by people openly voicing this self-righteous hatred is a warning to us all. We must remain vigilant. We must not only protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals, but also see the connections. Those refusing to enforce the law against one group are likely to refuse to enforce it against any group identified as “the other.” Those who are not old white men with specific political views are unsafe if we stand by and do nothing.
Fritts and Northcott do not exist in a vacuum. Not long ago, Northcott could have used his discretion to prosecute same-sex couples for simply having sex. Fritts could have arrested these people for the same. They would have called it, legally, “an unnatural act.”
HE WOULD HAVE SPOKEN WITH THE AUTHORITY OF THE TENNESSEE LEGISLATURE.
Just this year, the legislature has considered bills criminalizing as “indecent exposure” attempts by transgender people to use certain bathrooms. Another would explicitly allow businesses to obtain a license enabling them to refuse to serve LGBTQ people. Another would allow adoption agencies to refuse to place children for adoption with same-sex couples.
Change is generational. Perhaps, when some of us remember when homosexuality was described as akin to bestiality, it is unrealistic to expect true safety for LBGTQ people in so short a time. I find that hard to accept. Fritts and Northcott are entries on an entire list of people who discriminate against those they are meant to serve. Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, for example, voted against prohibiting employment discrimination and hate crimes legislation against LGBTQ people. She also supported a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, stating that “certain activist judges have taken it upon themselves to usurp the will of the people.”
Which people is she referring to? Fritts? Northcott?
Discrimination comes in many forms. It presents as the psychotic rantings of an off-the-rails cop. It shows up in debates in the halls of the General Assembly. We see it in the refusal to arrest the primary aggressor in a domestic assault case. It will take more than a few years to dismantle thousands of years of misunderstanding, fear and hatred. But we have to be vigilant.
Nonetheless, we’ve come a long way; this Pride Month, we do have reason to be proud. Our community will not stand quietly for this behavior.