05/01/2015 02:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Heartfelt Breakup Letter to Tennessee: This Is Why I'm Leaving

Dear Tennessee,

I'm sorry; I'm leaving you.

It's not a decision I make lightly -- My great-great-great-grandfather Neergaard immigrated from Germany more than a decade before the Civil War and settled twenty-five miles from my current home. My brother, five aunts and uncles and more extended family than I can count live in Tennessee, and I have resided here for ten splendid years. Nonetheless, it's over. I considered moving out with no explanation. But I still love you, and I think you need to know why I am leaving.

It's not because I lost my job last year. It's true, I searched everywhere for a job, and I knew I would have to relocate, but I could have tried harder to stay. Yes, I know terrible things will happen wherever I live, but my decision to move away is about you.

I admit, we've had great times together. I am nurtured by memories of riding with my grandfather on his tractor and cooling off in the river, building my dream house and performing some of the best math of my career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Sadly, trips to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, warm people and beautiful fall colors are not enough to conceal the fact that we are growing apart, and we have been for some time.

I thought I was brave enough to stick it out. Someone, I reasoned, must fight at the front lines of the cultural wars against intolerance and bigotry. I'm honored to serve, and along with others in our community, our family has made a difference. We have educated educators, helped found our local PFLAG chapter, helped local Gay Straight Transgender Alliances (GSTAs) put on the East Tennessee Youth Pride Fest and housed homeless LGBT teens. By his very existence, my gay son shows that homosexuality is not a sexual perversion, but rather a sexual orientation. I'm stung by the shame of giving up and of deserting my comrades.

I wanted to accomplish more. I never did get the local evangelical church youth program to join me on a crusade against LGBT bullying. Despite the dojo's enthusiasm, I did not manage to start a self-defense course for transgender women. I wanted to schedule LGBT sensitivity training for local police forces, but it didn't happen. I looked forward to extending the Safe Place program for youth in crisis to our town. I know I didn't do everything I could; you deserved more from our relationship.

The eighth grader who asked her English teacher, "Aren't you leaving transgender people out of your pronoun lesson?" deserves better from me. The fearless teacher who mentors a local GSTA is left short an ally. The staff who stand up for GLBT students in our middle schools need my support. Our transgender middle school and high school students don't have the option of flight, as I do. I am ashamed to leave them all behind, but you can't guilt me into staying.

I know you think I'm leaving because I'm upset, and yes, I am angry. When I see a Tennessee police officer justify confiscating a tourist's money with, "he couldn't prove it was legitimate," when I learn that a Tennessee fire department let a home burn to the ground over a $75 subscription fee the homeowner wasn't eligible to pay, when the Lt. Governor of this state questions whether Muslims have a right to practice their religion, and when I must enter my local courthouse beneath a black seven-foot granite sign emblazoned with "In God We Trust," (dedicated for a "secular purpose" at a ceremony featuring four pastors sandwiched between opening and closing prayers), I am furious. But this is not an emotional decision. We just don't want the same things anymore.


I want a superior education for my children. You, on the other hand, recently passed a law purporting to help students "develop critical thinking skills" by allowing teachers to criticize evolution, global warming and any other "controversial" subject. In an unintentional tribute to former Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, Governor Haslam allowed it to become law, expressing his skepticism that "it accomplishes anything..." (When he signed the 1925 anti-evolution Butler Act into law, Tennessee Governor Peay stressed his doubt that it would be an active statute. The Scopes Monkey Trial began 111 days later.). Not content to demolish scientific literacy in Tennessee, you are also abandoning Common Core standards in favor of "standards embodying Tennessee values." Your touted Tennessee values have led to an educational system ranked 37th of all 50 states. But our differences go beyond education.

I can't stand your misogyny. You recently started charging new mothers with assault if their babies are born with drug dependencies. The increase in the drug-dependent birth rate is unabated, despite 57 women in six months who left the state to give birth, and an unknown number who avoided medical attention altogether. This signified nothing to a Tennessee district attorney, who said, "I think the women we have charged would say the law was helpful to them." I don't know which is more appalling -- the manifest patriarchy of the statement, or the unmistakable conviction of the speaker. I want a society that treats the ill, while you blame them.

In the past few days, you pressed your attack on women with legislation creating absurd regulations for abortion clinics, along with a bill creating a mandatory 48-hour waiting period following in-person counseling by a physician, with no consideration for the effect of these rules on the poor. One of your House Representatives tabled a proposed exception for rape and incest with the remark, "in most instances this is not verifiable." There is a horrifying self-consistency to this remark. After all, a rapist is only required to marry his victim and pay 50 pieces of silver to her father if he is caught in the act (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). The same representative argued against an exception for mental health, observing, "It allows someone who is going to profit from abortion to get the waiting period waived," as if paying medical professionals to practice medicine is immoral. If it bothers you that much, would you care to target insurance company doctors dictating less effective medical treatments for profit?

Trick question, I know. If medical injustice troubled you, you would have embraced medicare expansion and insured 280,000 Tennesseans. Instead, less than a month ago, your legislators ensured once again that no action will be taken this year. I hate this about you. A medical professional who lives about 15 miles from me fought through the pain from her bladder cancer to come beg for her life in person, and you sent her home to die. Your remorseless inhumanity illustrates the growing distance between us.

If you've heard nothing I've said, then at least try to grasp this: Tenn. Code Ann. § 7-51-1802 invalidates every anti-discrimination ordinance by any local government in the history of Tennessee, and absolutely forbids them to enact any more. You have had four years to undo this, and you have done nothing. Every year, you have opportunity to extend protection from school bullying to LGBT students and their allies, and you do nothing.

As the Tennessee House majority floor leader explains to us that biracial dating may not be "expedient," that God still loves people who choose to be gay, although they won't go to heaven and that we need an NAAWP to stand up for all the poor oppressed Christians, your politicians tell us they are enacting the will of the Tennessee people. I have begun to believe they speak the truth.

That's why I can't stay.

Mike Neergaard