By Kelly Harrison
“When Game of Thrones is on, everything stops for that hour in the week. I’ve read all the books and I’m waiting for the next.” Reading and learning is how Chris Sanders chooses to spend what little time he has to himself.
“I relax and do what I want,” said Sanders. Every other moment you will find him heavily involved in his advocacy work as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Equality Project and the Tennessee Equality Foundation, a position that he has held since 2013.
With a graduate degree in divinity from Vanderbilt, his heart has always been led toward nonprofit work. It seems only natural that his favorite part of what he does consists of traveling the state, and meeting with the LGBT community and its allies.
Growing up gay in a small southern town, one would think you must mask who you are or act like someone you aren’t. The way Sanders described his experience sounded almost poetic.
“In a small town you reveal and mask many things. Sometimes the things you mask, everyone knows. Quite often the things you reveal everyone ignores.”
Sanders had been masking since he was in kindergarten because that’s when he knew. He went on to talk about the struggle of the process, overcoming the part where you convince yourself that everyone else is spending as much of their time thinking about you as you are.
He admitted that it’s important to keep moving forward in your own life and to not worry about what others are saying or thinking. Interested in knowing his coming out story, I asked Sanders to share it with me.
“Oh, I’m sure lots of people knew or suspected and there have been lots of coming out moments over the years. But then you get to take your straight friends to gay bars and they have a blast and that has happened more times than I can count.”
Sanders shared a moment from 2001 when at a reception he was asked by the spouse of a Vanderbilt professor if he was married.
“I probably could have just stuck with no. However, making a conscious choice to no longer stand for “compulsory heterosexuality” I told her.”
To this day what surprises him the most is when his friends come out to him.
“I never know how coming out will show up in my life.I think if I had not taken on certain specific roles in our community, I’m not sure how I would fit in. I really don’t know how I fit in now in terms of the LGBT social scene. You rarely find me out. That may surprise people because TEP is so often in the media that people assume I’m in the midst of everything,” said Sanders.
Sanders’s passion for the community in which he serves is clear and his goals are honest and precise.
Let’s take the bisexual identity for instance. Sanders had heartfelt words for all within the community when it came to validating and acknowledging such a large group of people.
“Straight people make it hard, but our community makes it hard too. If we gave space for bisexual people to be themselves, think how much stronger our movement would be!”
Sanders connects his coming out experience to getting involved early on in advocacy for equality. It helped him and he feels it can help others gain a sense of self in the coming out process.
“You can try to do it alone, but it’s better with friends!” Seeing young people speaking out in their schools and on the Legislative Plaza gives Sanders hope. “Some are fearless and some are afraid, but they are still doing it.”
Seeing parents from all over the state advocate for their kids when they never expected to do so reassures him that discrimination against them and discrimination against us doesn’t stand a chance and can’t last. He says it’s almost hard to remember a time for him before his life of advocacy. Through the years he has learned that there is not just one action that will help solve every situation the LGBT community faces.
“My concern, of course, is that discrimination persists in our state’s political culture and the fight will be long and it will have casualties.”
What’s next he says is the same as it has been for many years. While going over his responses to my questions, I had the feeling that each day was a preparation for coming out—a coming out for the community and the state of Tennessee, one that will show that there is more of a connection between people than some may realize. Sanders jokingly tells me that if he ever does retire he will move to the country and run for constable in a small county.
“I will come into town every morning with lights and sirens on and stir things up at the courthouse. I’m on my way to being that old man every day.”
Sanders’ retirement plans will have to wait for now. Between all that’s happening on the Hill and the meetings taking place every year at the Tennessee General Assembly, he will spend time preparing to keep LGBT rights progressing.
“It will happen whether I’m there or not, but as long as I am fortunate enough to have this job, I will spend my time advocating there or preparing for the upcoming legislative session. Preparing for that involves trying to grow the movement in every part of TN. That’s plenty to keep me busy.”