Guest Blogger

A Fight I Didn't Pick

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 10, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics, The Movement
Tags: civil rights, gay rights, LGBT community, Memphis, Rep Cohen, Steve Cohen, Tennessee

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Stephen I. Cohen is a Member of the House of Representatives for Tennessee's 9th District, roughly encompassing the City of Memphis. He serves on the Judiciary and Transportation committees where he is a fierce campaigner for civil liberties and human rights. Rep Cohen resides in Memphis with his cats and an enviable record collection.

Cohen.jpgMemphis is not the city that springs to mind when one thinks of gay rights. Blues, maybe, but gay rights are enshrined in places like Christopher Street and San Francisco. Memphis conjures up Martin Luther King Jr., striking sanitation workers, Elvis, Jim Crow, and blues. In my decades of crusading for civil rights, I never intended to join the front lines of the LGBT movement. I never meant to pick that fight. The weight of Memphis' history made fighting for racial equality a natural road to take, one that I have traveled over the years with pride. That road has led me many places, some familiar, some not so, but foremost it has led me to understand that basic human freedoms, those things taken for granted by most Americans, cannot be afforded only to a specific class of person.

I have always believed that a right recognized by a people must be extended to all people. No one can be a second-class citizen, or we are all bound to be such by living in a second-class society. America is not, nor do I believe that it will ever be, such a society, and as such it is imperative and inevitable that we will recognize the fundamental truth that all people are entitled to the same basic freedoms. To do less would be to chart for these United States, a course toward being something completely different than the entire weight of our history has destined for us.

American history is a study in the expansion of human freedoms. What began as equality for white, male landowners has over these centuries blossomed into a guarantee of civil rights for the poor, for women, for all races, creeds, and colors. It is the natural progression of this great expansion of freedom that equal rights now, without any further delay, are extended to the LGBT community.

During my tenure in the Tennessee state legislature I believed this so firmly that I led the fight where no one else would. Those years were lonely, but we won some victories. The placement of the words "sexual orientation" alongside "race" and "gender" into several major anti-discrimination statutes in Tennessee are the legacy of those long, lonely years as a voice in the wilderness. Now that my willingness to stand on principle rather than poll numbers has led me to Congress, I find myself much less lonely but no less driven to fight for change.

I have fought for ENDA and for the Hate Crimes Bill. I got state funds for a sensible HIV/AIDS policy in Tennessee, and I have continued that fight in Congress. The fact that these issues are not yet resolved saddens me, but it gives me a purpose. This American experiment is not yet complete. There are those who are still excluded from full participation in society. There are still poor. There are still marginalized people. There is still a fight that needs champions.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee championing civil liberties legislation is part of my purview. Judiciary has never been a popular committee for freshman legislators. It provides few if any opportunities to bring money or jobs home to the district. Victories won on it may translate into justice, but justice doesn't win elections as readily as federal grant money and government contracts. However, from my first day running for Congress I aspired to serve on Judiciary. My reason was simple. Federal dollars may make people vote for me in the next election, but the next election is hardly my primary concern. The next generation is of significantly more import.

My vision for that generation is one of fully recognized freedoms for all individuals living in a nation where government helps those less fortunate to be a part of our great society. My vision is of one People, one Nation, one America. "E Pluribus Unum" is not merely some trademark stamped on the Great Seal as part of some American branding scheme. It is a vision of our world. It is a call to unity. It is, in and of itself, a sacred purpose.

As a society we do not gain the right to call ourselves unified or just if we are not. Just being American does prove us great and good. It is those things that Americans have done that has made America so, and America will continue to be great, to be good by continuing to expand civil liberties for all, by embracing all walks of life into one society, into one America.


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Wow. Thank you, Congressman, for adding your voice in support of our community, and for standing up to be counted.

Thank you, Bil, for bringing this outstanding public servant to our attention, and for giving him a forum.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 10, 2008 11:14 AM

Representative Cohen. Thank you and I hope the good citizens of your district rally around you for the quality of your thoughts, inclusiveness and "content of character."

Congressman Cohen, thank you for speaking to the heart of this matter when you explain your reason to serve on the Judiciary Committee. "Federal dollars may make people vote for me in the next election, but the next election is hardly my primary concern. The next generation is of significantly more import.
My vision for that generation is one of fully recognized freedoms for all individuals living in a nation where government helps those less fortunate to be a part of our great society. My vision is of one People, one Nation, one America. "E Pluribus Unum" is not merely some trademark stamped on the Great Seal as part of some American branding scheme. It is a vision of our world. It is a call to unity. It is, in and of itself, a sacred purpose."

Your service to this country is truly American, reflects the real meaning of America!

Liberty 'n Justice for ALL!


The Congressman is a light in the wilderness. We need many more like him in Congress.

If you're so inclined, you can make a donation to his campaign here.

It is easy to forget that most Congressmen are not there to make waves or headlines - like my Congressman, and like Congressman Cohen, they go there to work for the best interests of their communities, their districts, and ultimately the nation.

Thank you, Congressman Cohen, for your service to your city, state, and country.

Dear Rep Cohen:

I think I love you.

Thank you for standing up for all people, Congressman Cohen! We need more public servants like you.

beergoggles | June 10, 2008 6:15 PM

Thank you for doing what's right. I just had to say it in case you don't get enough Thank Yous for your effort.

Tommy Simmons | June 10, 2008 7:44 PM

I am proud (and very lucky) to call Congressman Cohen my Congressman. The GLBT citizens of Memphis, Shelby County and Tennessee are blessed to have him as their Representative in Washington.

To help support Congressman Cohen, visit his re-election site at: http://www.cohenforcongress.com/

Note the "Contribute" tab!

See everyone at Mid-South Pride this Saturday in Memphis.

Great work! The Judiciary Committee needs more chutzpah, so keep it up!

TampaZeke | June 10, 2008 8:25 PM

This is the PRO-CHOICE Representative that EMILY'S LIST is trying to throw out of the House by supporting another candidate simply because she's a woman.

This in spite of the fact that she is racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic.

I think Emily's List has a lot of explaining to do.

Thank you, Congressman Cohen.

But I also have to thank you, Bil and the others who post to the Bilerico Project for getting the word out about the issues faced by the LGBT community.

As members of Congress are informed about us, more and more of them will choose to become our allies even when faced by strong opposition from their constituencies. It shouldn't take courage to do the right thing, but too often it does.

Thank you!

I'm not from Tennnessee (although I did drive through his district last weekend), but I'd like to point out that prior to being elecetd to Congress, Rep. Cohen took a major stand for transsexuals by sponsoring a bill in the Tennessee Legislature to remove an ugly stain on Tennessee's statute books: the only statute in the nation specifically prohibiting us from conforming our birth certificates to post-transition reality.

I find it disgusting that Rep. Cohen is having to face the type of opposition he is currently dealing with.

Rep. Cohen, I wish you the best and I certainly hope you're able to serve in Congress next year under President Obama.

Bill Carpenter | June 15, 2008 1:50 AM

Greetings Congressman Cohen...or, as I knew you when I lived in Memphis...Hey, Steve! As an out gay man who grew up in Memphis and who lives in Florida now, working with Soulforce to bring an end to religion based discrimination against LGBT people, I'm honored and inspired by your advocacy on behalf of LGBT people. You're steadfast stand for the "other" is refreshing and inspiring. If there's ever any way that I can support you as you support me and my LGBT brothers and sisters...just let me know.

In Peace and Love - Bill Carpenter

As a teacher I am continuously challenged with teaching students to believe in their power as Americans and as individuals no matter who they are or where they've come from. I say this is a challenge because I do not always believe what I want my students to believe about our "great nation". I am grateful for political figures like yourself, however, who restores my belief in our country, who stands up for ALL people, and who allows me to be heard through you by casting a Cohen vote. Thank you on behalf of...all of us! Rohbi Yow