Blue strongholds in red states are more vulnerable than ever: Inside the battle for Nashville’s soul

United States debate and US social issues argument or political war as an American culture conflict as conservative and liberal political dispute and ideology in a 3D illustration style.
Photo: Shutterstock

A billboard hanging in Nashville from the conservative youth organization, Turning Point, reads, “Stop state sponsored grooming in schools.” But you don’t have to see it to know that there is a heated civil rights war afoot. The detritus of hate is unfortunately everywhere now, but the billboard’s presence is a sobering reminder that the fight for LGBTQ+ rights has reached a fever pitch and is creeping into municipalities that have long been safe spaces for the community.

More anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is circulating among state legislatures than ever before – with Tennessee embarrassingly leading the charge. While that’s no surprise considering the deep red makeup of most of the state, longtime Nashvillians have been alarmed to see the treasured blue oasis also being infringed upon. What Nashville stands for is apparently now up for debate – for the first time in the city’s history, a Republican has a clear shot at becoming mayor. 

In the last twelve months, Tennessee has passed the nation’s first drag ban and outlawed gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth. Both of these are being challenged in the courts, but that has not stopped the state legislature from celebrating its grim victory and chugging along accordingly. As the GOP’s fight to curtail LGBTQ+ rights rages on, liberal hubs in the conservative chokehold of the American South could not be more imperative. 

While many might resign to abandoning the region to its backward ways, many are still fighting the good fight in southern states — and they need refuges from which to take a stand. Nashville has long been one of these places, offering southern queer people a safe place to call home. But the state legislature has Nashville in its sights, making the city’s current mayoral race of the utmost importance to LGBTQ+ equality. The September election will decide whether or not the queer people of Nashville have an ally in City Hall.

Nashville’s crumbling blue oasis

For generations, Nashville has been a blue wall in support of civil rights in the deep South. The lunch counter sit-ins to protest segregation took place in downtown Nashville in 1960. In the 1920s, the fight to ratify the 19th Amendment was headquartered in Nashville at the Hermitage Hotel. Despite its geographic location, the city has long been a hotbed of “good trouble,” as the late Congressman John Lewis called it. And it’s for those reasons that the GOP supermajority in the state legislature has sought in the last few years to do everything within its almost unlimited power to squeeze Nashville out. 

In March they passed legislation, eagerly signed by Republican Governor Bill Lee, that cut the city council in half from 40 members to 20. While the law was statewide, Nashville was the only city affected, and the legislation was widely viewed as retaliatory for the city council blocking the Republican National Convention from being hosted in the city. The city has since sued the state over the measure, but it’s just another battle in a war to obliterate a liberal stronghold. 

The city has also been redistricted beyond recognition, to the point that a Republican (Andy Ogles) is representing Nashville in Congress for the first time since 1875. Most recently, legislation has been introduced that would make runoffs illegal. And again, despite being statewide, this mostly targets Nashville, where there is often a democratic plurality that must be voted down to two candidates that compete in a runoff. This is exactly what is happening right now between Democrat Freddie O’Connell and Republican Alice Rolli. 

A historic mayoral showdown

On the way to this upcoming showdown between O’Connell and Rolli, the field was crowded with multiple viable Democratic candidates, including state senators Jeff Yarboro and Heidi Campbell. It was a shock to many in the city that Rolli made it to the runoff. But the primary election results speak to the fight underway for Nashville’s soul. 

While the city is historically liberal, its economic boom fueled by tourism and its status as an attractive hotbed for real estate development has led to an influx of new residents and businesses. Amazon has opened a headquarters and Oracle is building a campus along the Cumberland River’s east bank. This monied relocating is attractive to everyone, encouraging conservative talking heads like Ben Shapiro and Candice Owens to now call Nashville home as well. It’s clear as we head into this runoff that Nashville’s blue heartbeat has weakened and now must compete with a burgeoning thrum of red noise. 

Rolli is running on a moderate platform with a promise of “together for Nashville.” She’s been campaigning on priorities of heavier policing, fiscal responsibility, and bolstering education. Her prior political experience was serving as the assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development under Governor Bill Haslam (R), and she also was Lamar Alexander’s campaign manager. Most of her career experience has been in the private sector in sales for tech-ed companies. 

Freddie O’Connell has been on Nashville’s city council since 2015 and during his tenure served on both the Public Works Committee and the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Committee. He has worked as well to limit the nuisance of “transportainment” vehicles and was also vocal against the controversial Titans stadium deal

While Rolli has established herself as a centrist on the GOP spectrum, a photo has since surfaced of her broadly smiling, holding a thumbs up in a Tennessee ballcap at Trump’s inauguration. More alarming, it was revealed in recent weeks that one of Rolli’s campaign consultants, Woodrow Johnston, had significant ties to the Proud Boys and tried to organize a “stop the steal” intimidation rally in Nevada during the 2020 election.

Rolli fired Johnston and his firm and stated, “Hatred has no place in Nashville. It has no place in my campaign.” While Rolli has spoken in broad platitudes about tolerance, she has yet to voice any full-throated support for the LGBTQ+ community and did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this piece. 

O’Connell on the other hand has been a vocal ally of the LGBTQ+ community for years. He was also readily available and eager to speak on the issue. In terms of Nashville’s history of being welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, O’Connell pointed to the continued growth of the annual Pride festival, which has eclipsed from a small gathering in the park to a weekend-long festival and parade. He also mentioned the growing number of LGBTQ+-owned businesses and the continued presence of organizations like the LGBTQ Chamber, Inclusion Tennessee, and the Victory Fund. 

When asked how he will handle the state’s politics interfering with the city’s sensibilities, he offered a community-based approach. “Some of this happens by looking at opportunities to have productive conversations with leaders who know why this matters,” he told LGBTQ Nation. “Look at Governor Lee who has LGBTQ members in his family, the same with Eddie Mannis – we would discover if we went member by member that so many people in our lives are friend or family to LGBTQ people. We need to approach it that way, seeing where we can affect policy with a sense of community.” 

When asked about Rolli’s stance, O’Connell said he’d like to assume the best of Rolli’s intentions but criticized that, “She has said she doesn’t intend to nationalize the local political.”  

“National and state politics have impact on Nashvillians to live their authentic lives,” he said.“We want to create a Nashville where people can stay and will stay. It’s come out that she’s had involvement with people who oppose those ideals.” 

The fate of LGBTQ+ Nashvillians

On September 14, Nashville will decide between these two vastly different candidates. The facts are out there; it’s just a question of voter turnout at this point. O’Connell received 27,470 votes in the primary and Rolli received 20,458 (in a county of roughly 800,000).

What is evident is a newly polarized Nashville and an LGBTQ+ community that hangs in the balance. A recent Survey conducted by Community Marketing and Insights in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign revealed that of the 15,000 LGBTQ+ people surveyed, 80% reported feeling unsafe in America.

It will be up to Nashville’s next mayor to decide how Nashville factors into that feeling of either safety or danger. O’Connell will make safety for the LGBTQ+ community a priority, and as for Rolli, a vague promise of tolerance seems to be sufficient. 

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

California just became the first U.S. state to establish Transgender History Month

Previous article

First out and active gay NFL player Carl Nassib announces retirement

Next article