By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The father of slain gay college student Matthew Shepard said he is disturbed by legislation in Tennessee that would ban public schools from teaching about gay issues.
Dennis Shepard spoke at a Nashville news conference Wednesday. He said the proposal, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, is an example of legislation that could be harmful to gays.
Shepard spoke at a forum on hate crime prevention in Nashville on Thursday. He said he doesn’t understand why so much attention is given to gays or transgender individuals because they’re ordinary people who often have “boring” lives.
“These bills disturb me,” he said Shepard. “Just the idea that you’re talking about it bothers me. They are American citizens. Let them have their peace and their privacy, and become the dull, boring people that we want them to be.”
Shepard’s son, Matt, was 21 when he was beaten 14 years ago in Wyoming, tied to a fence and left in the cold by two men he met in a bar. Both men are serving life sentences.
His death spurred passage of a measure that expanded earlier federal hate crime law to include sexual orientation, among other things.
The parents of one of two gay teenagers who committed suicide in Tennessee recently have said constant bullying over being gay led their son to kill himself.
Conservative activists are trying to make changes to a proposal this year that seeks to discourage student bullying.
The Family Action Council of Tennessee said in the group’s December newsletter that it wants “to make sure (the legislation) protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality.”
Leaders of the gay rights advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project contend such legislation would give students a “license to bully” by allowing them to hide their irrational biases behind an extreme religious belief, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported recently.
David Fowler, a former Republican state senator and president of the Family Action Council, told reporters Wednesday that he has been working with the Tennessee Equality Project and other gay rights activists to revise language in the bill.
“The feedback has been positive,” Fowler said.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said it’s not his intention to create an atmosphere that could be hurtful to gays.
“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.”
Last year, a Tennessee law passed that prohibits local governments from creating anti-discrimination regulations that are stricter than those of the state. The law nullified a Nashville ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city.