The "Don’t Say Gay" bill and being "tender-hearted" in TN


So Tennessee, my home state and the setting of many of my stories and novels, has again made the national news. The State Senate passed a law dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which outlaws even mentioning the existence of gay people in elementary and middle school. I doubt this also includes not mentioning the various slurs and code words Tennesseans have always used for gay folks; in fact, I’m sure the sponsors of the bill often employed those terms in closed-door meetings prior to presenting the bill, right after the opening prayer.

As a child with little aptitude in sports and an interest in literature, science fiction and movies, my schoolmates often teased me with those same slurs. A cousin, in fact, once taunted me with some of them for reading Star Trek: Log Five, just before he beat me up. The fact that I wasn’t gay didn’t particularly matter, as it never does in such situations. But it was, and remains, the way kids often are, and while I disapprove of it I also comprehend the reasons for it, especially in the South.

Still, it was nothing compared to the contempt adults showed for kids they deemed “different,” “odd” or “weird,” and that included a term of such surpassing brilliance that I still marvel at it: tender-hearted. It sounds almost like a compliment, much as does “Bless your heart,” which is now generally known to be Southern code for, “You’re so stupid.” In the same way, “tender-hearted” is code for “gay.” Or more precisely, it’s synonymous with one of the pithier terms used to derisively describe gay males.

The first time I cursed (we called it “cussed”) in front of other people got the term “tender-hearted” applied to me. When I was about ten or eleven, some older good ol’ boys dragged a turtle from a pond and cut off its head in their driveway for no reason other than to do it. I told them I found it ignorant and cruel, and when they laughed at me for that, I let fly with every curse word I knew. I was also so mad I started crying. Between the tears and the general knowledge that I liked to read books, I was quickly pegged as “tender-hearted,” and to this day (nearly forty years later) the people in my home town still think of me that way.

So the “Don’t Say Gay” bill disappoints and saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. Good ol’ Tennesseans have a long tradition of not saying “gay.” Instead, depending on the situation, they either use slurs or euphemisms, as they do for everything else. Bless their hearts.

(Please visit and support It’s Okay to be Takei, George “Mr. Sulu” Takei’s brilliant response to the Tennessee law.)

Posted on by Alex in don't say gay bill, tennessee, west Tennessee

4 Responses to The "Don’t Say Gay" bill and being "tender-hearted" in TN

  1. S.M.D.

    I was actually born in Tennessee, but with this kind of stuff going on there I'm glad I only lived in the state for a few months as a baby… It's a very sad world we live in where the government can be used to suppress reality.

  2. Kelly Bryson

    On the other hand, I think people in general are getting more tolerant, even if they believe it's wrong. I come from a very "Southern" family, although our roots are in North Florida- and I have gay family members that are treated kindly- until they reach for the last beer. Then it's every man/woman/fairy for himself. (That's a joke. Nobody get mad at me, okay?) Seriously, I just spent the weekend with the whole conservative, mesh-hat wearing bunch, and nobody cares about Gay Relative's orientation. But we'd never kill turtles for fun either.

  3. Jess, of the bugs

    I can't remember ever hearing "tender-hearted" growing up, but I have heard a number of less gentle ways of putting it. Anyway, you're right. This is already a hostile environment for anyone that's different or weird. Iris has this one friend, a boy, who happens to like Harry Potter as much as she does. She reports that he doesn't have any friends (except her) and I imagine that it's because he's a nerdy little boy.
    I'm really tired of TN being associated with hatemongers, ignorance, and fear. There's so much positive about TN that is being overshadowed by this kind of stuff. That's always been the case and it's unfortunate that people should think so poorly of us.

    (I am ashamed to say that I have used "Bless your heart" on occasion, but only when I'm really annoyed. I find it's better than saying "Wow, you're an idiot.")

  4. Bill

    I live in Tennessee and yes there are plenty of hate mongers here, but don't for one minute think that is exclusive to Tennesse. I've met haters from every place I've been. I once introduced myself at a medical conference in Arizona as being from Nashville. The response I received was, "Yeah, we could tell." Based on the tone it translated as, "Damn Hillbilly…" So do not label folks from the Volunteer State without looking inward.

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