EXCLUSIVE: The Facts Behind the Murfreesboro ‘Anti-Gay’ Ordinance
A Nashville suburb, under intense media fire for passing an ordinance banning sexual conduct during public marches, has exclusively told The Washington Stand it wanted to send a message that sexual activity in public is “inconsistent with contemporary community standards.”
Murfreesboro, a city of 158,000 people located 35 miles from Nashville, passed an ordinance on June 15 banning public indecency during public events such as Pride marches. This week, a transgender activist claimed the ordinance banned “public homosexuality” — and expressed outrage over the city shielding young people from sexually explicit books.
Murfreesboro adopted a Community Standards Decency Ordinance by a near-unanimous vote on June 15. The city government “has a sacred trust of surpassing importance … in the protection of children by safeguarding them from behavior, material, and events that primarily appeal to prurient interest,” the ordinance explains — especially while they are in a public place.
The ordinance prohibits “indecent exposure, public indecency, lewd behavior, nudity, or sexual conduct as defined in Section 21-71 of the Murfreesboro City Code,” says the ordinance. A transgender blogger and activist who goes by the name Erin Reed pointed out the relevant portion of the city code prohibits “acts of masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse, or physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or, if such person be a female, breast.”
The liberal website The New Republic ran with Reed’s claims in a story titled “A City in Tennessee Banned Public Homosexuality — and We All Missed It.” Murfreesboro officials “passed [an] ordinance essentially prohibiting homosexuality in public,” the story stated, touching off a national backlash.
“I need you to understand that a city in Tennessee just outlawed you being gay,” claimed Jessica Anderson, an unsuccessful candidate in the most recent election for the Virginia House of Delegates, in an online video viewed more than 21,500 times as of this writing. “If you continue to be in a homosexual relationship in public, you can be repeatedly fined upwards of $50.”
“This is them literally trying to enact fascism on a small scale,” Anderson asserted. “And if you don’t pay attention, it’s going to come to a city or county near you, so,” she added, concluding in mid-sentence.
But a city official tells The Washington Stand the online uproar got the facts wrong. The underlying law had been on the books since 1949, “with no record or recollection of it ever having been enforced,” the official told TWS exclusively.
The city’s “Community Decency Standards Ordinance was deemed necessary because of many events occurring across the country during the last couple of years. As an example, in June 2022, the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulations was compelled to issue a notice to holders of Florida business licenses that threatened the revocation of those licenses given the occurrences of sexualized drag performances targeting children,” Michael Browning, the city’s public information officer, told The Washington Stand exclusively. “That type of conduct is inconsistent with contemporary community standards of Murfreesboro, and the council believed that these standards needed to be clearly expressed.”
The city adopted the new code, because it strengthened existing laws and “imposed new civil penalties for conduct that other city code provisions and state law prohibited,” he explained. Any individual or organization guilty of public indecency could not receive a permit to hold a public event for two years — or five years if a minor was present.
But the law never targeted random individuals for being “gay in public,” as Anderson stated.
“For consistency purposes, the ordinance referenced … a code provision that originated in the 1940s and was updated some 46 years ago,” in 1977, which “contained the term ‘homosexual’ in the definition of prohibited conduct,” Browning told TWS. “There is, however, no record or recollection of it ever having been enforced, and the term would have long ago been rendered ineffective by state law.”
Aside from the annual Pride events, the city plays home to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). MTSU’s Office of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs reveals that, at the Murfreesboro-based university, “both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression are protected classes under the MTSU Non-discrimination policy.” Local campus LGBTQ organizations have held public events for years.
Due to the law’s inert status, “it was overlooked until just recently when the City Council enacted a modification removing the term for purposes of clarity,” Browning told TWS.
The city council unanimously voted to remove the word “homosexuality” from Murfreesboro’s City Code on Thursday night.
The LGBTQ movement had long targeted the ordinance, which bars much of the activity that takes place at LGBT Pride marches. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won an injunction from Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr., an Obama appointee, allowing a local LGBTQ+ organization named BoroPride to hold its annual event.
LGBT activists hammered the city for “banning” sexually graphic books from minors. Under the new ordinance, the county library removed four books containing sexually explicit same-sex material, including “This Book is Gay,” which graphically describes using sex toys and other homosexual sexual practices. Other books removed from the library in August include “Queerfuly and Wonderfully Made,” “Let’s Talk About It,” and “Flamer.” But the Rutherford County Library Board voted to keep two other controversial books — “Queen Charlotte” and “Sex is a Funny Word” — on display in September.
Reed and others drew attention to the fact that the county will institute a new policy not allowing minors to check out sexually explicit books without their parents’ permission.
The city ordinance won its share of supporters outside government. “Quit posting lies and propaganda,” one online commentator chided those piling on the city. “This has nothing to do with being gay. It has everything to do with rude and indecent behavior.” Murfreesboro is part of Rutherford County, where President Donald Trump won 57% of the county vote with a record 74% voter turnout in 2020.
State pro-family advocates praised the public decency ordinance for protecting childhood modesty and respecting parents’ rights to discuss sexuality on their own timeline, and according to their own values.
“The fundamental principle at issue is our understanding of what kind of creatures men and women are and what they are for,” David Fowler of the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) told TWS. “The fact that there could be such controversy about not issuing permits for these shows in public demonstrates that a number of people in the larger community are confused on that issue. But the fact that we’ve reached this point also demonstrates, at least to me, that as God’s people we have not ‘discipled the nations’ in the little part of the nation that is ours very well.”
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.