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VOL. 122 | NO. 68 | Friday, April 13, 2007

Welcome to Dixie, Christine

By Lindsay Jones

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()

This has been a busy week for Christine Sun. And judging by the nature of her job, it only stands to get busier.

Sun, a well-known gay rights attorney, just began her new post Monday leading the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights work in the South.

Her home base is the Nashville office of ACLU of Tennessee, from which she presides over a six-state region including Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Except for the national, private, nonprofit, non-partisan organization's usual presence in the Volunteer State, this is the first time someone from the ACLU has set up shop smack-dab in the Deep South specifically to combat unfairness toward people with same-sex partners and other so-called alternative lifestyle issues.

So let the games begin.

"What led up to (my appointment) is that the LGBT project and the ACLU have been wanting to expand their presence, especially here in the South," Sun said. "Most of the LGBT attorneys are in New York. ... It was time for a lawyer to be based in the South."

Aside from those in New York, the ACLU's other primary gay rights attorneys work in California, Illinois and Michigan, she said.

Sun graduated in 1998 with honors from the New York University (NYU) School of Law, where she served as editor of the NYU Law Review. She also clerked in Federal District Court in New York City for Judge Robert L. Carter, former NAACP general counsel who argued the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Before joining the ACLU in 2004, Sun worked for complex civil and criminal litigation firm Keker & Van Nest LLC in San Francisco.

"We're delighted to welcome Christine to the South and especially happy that she will be working out of the ACLU Tennessee office," said executive director Hedy Weinberg. "Christine brings a wealth of legal skills and experiences ... which will be especially important as we continue our work to promote and protect fairness in the LGBT community."

Weinberg pointed out that Tennessee and its neighboring states continue to lag behind others such as California and Vermont in the way they treat people who don't fit traditional molds. What's more, it's perfectly legal for employers in Tennessee to fire people for being openly homosexual, Weinberg said.

"Tennessee is an employment-at-will state (meaning employers may terminate employees without giving reasons), but remember we have state law and federal law that protects against discrimination based on gender, race, religion, national origin and disability," Weinberg said. "However, there is no Tennessee state law - or, for that matter, federal law - that protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"We are working to change that, but it's a steep hill to climb."

One of the initiatives Weinberg and others recently challenged is the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment otherwise known as the "defense of marriage amendment" to the state constitution that says only marriage between a man and a woman can be recognized legally in Tennessee. The amendment was approved by referendum - something Weinberg refers to as a "very painful vote" - in 2006.

The ACLU of Tennessee, the Tennessee Equality Project and other plaintiffs sued, claiming the amendment had not been published in a timely manner between legislative sessions as required by the state constitution. To Weinberg's and the others' ultimate disappointment, the suit was dismissed at the appellate level. Without legitimate recognition by the state, gay couples are not entitled to any of the tax or Social Security benefits straight married couples are.

To read the full text of the amendment, see www.mglcc.or/if/TN_Marriage_Amendment.pdf.

So one of Sun's main tasks not only will be to revisit that issue when (or if) possible, but to ride herd on everything from employment, fair housing, daily relationships, adoption/child custody and - one item particularly close to her heart - gay youth issues.

Sun still has a case pending in California in which a high school honor student sued her principal and the school district for "essentially expelling" her after she and her girlfriend were caught in a public display of affection. She was "hugging and kissing her girlfriend when straight couples were making out and engaging in sexually explicit behavior all around them," Sun said, and the principal gave the young woman an ultimatum that either she or her girlfriend would have to leave the school.

An eight-day bench trial was held in December and the presiding federal judge has not yet reached a verdict.

"One of the great results we've already achieved from that case is a ruling that principals can't 'out' gay kids to their parents. ... 'Coming out (of the closet)' is such a hard thing for anybody to do, especially a kid who is financially and emotionally dependent on their parent," Sun said. "Kids get thrown out of their houses, beaten up.

"Studies have shown gay kids are much more likely to contemplate suicide. (The ruling) is forcing the principal to stop what he's doing and think about the terrible ramifications (his behavior) could have on a kid."

While Sun jokes that one of her main goals right now is to "get some Internet access in my office, for sure," her vision as the new six-state gay rights guru is much more serious.

"The goal is to get folks engaged on these issues, whether it's through court cases or community outreach," she said. "We have to win in the court of public opinion before we make any real progress. ... Obviously, there's things I'm going to do in the state and surrounding states that will affect Memphis. I'm definitely looking forward to working with people in Memphis who are fighting against discrimination."

No matter what your views are on same-sex couples, bisexuality or transgender issues, much of Sun's work stands to penetrate the deeper reasons for the ACLU's being - namely, as one brochure said, to "protect and promote the Bill of Rights."

No one - and I mean no one - should be hassled for his or her personal choices if those choices affect only themselves and do not harm other people.

So let me be the first in the Bluff City to roll out a welcome mat for you, Christine.

Slain Student’s Mother
to Speak at U of M

The mother of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old Wyoming college student who was beaten to death in 1998 for being gay, is slated to speak Monday at 7 p.m. at the University of Memphis’ Michael D. Rose Theatre.
Since her son’s savage and well-publicized murder, Shepard has testified to the U.S. Senate in support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 and has established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to carry on his legacy.
The event is free and open to the public.
For more information, call 678-8679.

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