Q&A: Carla Lewis, President of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition

A Maryville resident, Carla Lewis was elected president of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition on January 19.

Are you the first East Tennessean to have such a responsible position with TTPC?

The group started back in 2003, and the bylaws have stated that one person can only hold a position for nine years total. The whole time, the president has been Dr. Marisa Richmond.

So those are pretty big shoes to fill.

Yes, she's very smart, teaches history at MTSU, and also lobbies in her spare time. She lives in Nashville, so it's a bit easier for her than it would be for me. However, she has volunteered to remain our dedicated lobbyist and she'll go to Legislative Plaza two or three times a week. To my knowledge, we are the only statewide trans group that has a dedicated lobbyist and always has.

What makes you most qualified for the job?

Absolutely nothing! One thing that does set me apart from others in the group is that I have absolutely no problem being "out." I'm also outspoken, but that's not necessarily a qualification. People often mistake being outspoken for leadership ability, but that's not always the case.

What are your top priorities?

I've been reviewing the bylaws, and one of the things I want to get done is to get TTPC actual 501(c)(4) status. In past years, we've been a grassroots organization operating as if we're a non-profit entity. If we became an official political action committee, we don't have to pay taxes on income received.

Do you have legislative goals?

The group is supposed to further legislation and advocate for transgender people on the local, state, and federal level. However, over the past nine years we have supported anything that could be basically applied to LGBT issues. This year, state legislators are limited on the number of bills they can submit, to 15. I don't know if [state Sen.] Stacey Campfield is submitting from the bottom or the top of his list of the dumbest ideas he could come up with, but he's pushing for a change in the education laws that would "out" students. If a student came to their counselor and maybe said they thought they were gay, the counselor would have to notify the parents that the kid is possibly homosexual. We'll be working against that one.

Any specifically dealing with transgender issues?

There are two bills TTPC has sponsored for each of the past nine years, though we haven't made any headway. The first would allow transgender people in Tennessee to change the gender on their birth certificate. Most people don't know that Tennessee is the only state that specifically has laws that ban changing the gender on a birth certificate that specifies transgenders. That means legally in this state you're considered perpetually to be your birth gender, whenever your gender might come into play. The second is Tennessee's rudimentary hate crime law. Unlike hate crime laws in other states, where additional resources might be given to investigative or prosecutorial arms if a hate crime is suspected, here a judge at the conclusion of a case has sole discretion whether to enhance the sentence based on certain factors. One of the factors already in Tennessee law is if the victim was selected because of sexual orientation. We've been trying the past nine years to add "gender identity or expression" to that bill.

You'll try again this year?

Actually, we didn't get a sponsor for the birth certificate bill this year, so we'll try again in 2014. We did get a sponsor for the hate crimes bill—Ophelia Ford.

Is it more important to fight Campfield's legislation or promote your own?

Stacey Campfield is an attention whore, so I think it's a waste to combat all his bills. Although I was disgusted that the "Don't Say Gay" bill passed in the Senate last session.

Is it awkward that you and Campfield come from the same area?

No, no. And I have to defend him on a certain level. I think he's a very, very clever man. He might be lacking in common sense, and actual knowledge, but he's very clever. I think a lot of people underestimate him.

How might the average citizen help?

We can always use donations. It does cost a lot to send someone to try to change the mind of legislators. And people can open their mouths and tell two other people how they feel about transgender people—but of course only if it's positive.

Does a sense of humor help you in this role?

I think humor helps in every role. I believe a sense of humor comes from a deep sense of pain. that people who don't experience pain don't really have a sense of humor. Considering that, all transgender people should be f--king hilarious.

Have you been with TTPC since the start?

Since 2003, or 2004, I honestly don't remember. But there's one big problem I've had with the group over the years, something I plan on solving. I have a real problem as president of TTPC being the "voice of transgender people" in our entire state when only a fraction of 1 percent of the transgenders in Tennessee are members. I do not want to sit in front of a representative or senator and say what we should do--that would just be me trying to push my own agenda. I am going to try to dramatically increase our membership this year. If I do nothing else, I want to do that.

For more information about TTPC: ttgpac.com