Freemasons in Tennessee voted to uphold a ban on gay members Thursday during a members-only meeting in Nashville, according to Freemasons who witnessed the vote.
Two Freemasons confirmed the results to The Tennessean, but asked for anonymity since business conducted at the meetings is secret, and revealing it could have them kicked out of the organization. The vote took place at the Grand Lodge of Tennessee on Seventh Avenue North near Broadway.
The Grand Lodge of Tennessee did not return The Tennessean’s request for comment. The organization has about 41,000 members in Tennessee and more than 300 lodges across the state, according to the Grand Lodge’s website.
Freemasonry is a fraternity of men who, according to the lodge’s website, are dedicated to “building the moral character of its members and the preservation of personal freedom.” Freemasons also are known for their charitable work and across the nation donate $2 million daily to charitable causes, according to the website.
While the organization is secretive, bans on allowing gay men to participate in Tennessee and Georgia have prompted public discussion locally and globally, said Christopher Hodapp, the author of “Freemasons for Dummies” and a blog with the same name.
“It’s a sad situation for all of us because we hate to see this kind of disharmony going on in the organization,” Hodapp said Thursday in an interview with The Tennessean. “We’re supposed to be helping each other as brothers and not engaging in fights like this. This is the last thing that should be going on.”
Grand masters nationally and internationally have weighed in on the debate, and California and Washington, D.C., grand lodges have suspended Masonic relations with Tennessee and Georgia because of it. But each state is autonomous, Hodapp said.
In the fall, the Grand Lodge of Tennessee suspended two West Tennessee Freemasons — Dennis Clark and Mark Henderson, of Somerville, who married in June after the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
After hearing news of Thursday’s vote, Clark said he was deeply disappointed and believes the actions of the Grand Lodge will set a precedent for future discrimination against any gay Freemasons who come forward.
“In rejecting the amendment to remove discriminatory language, from my perspective, they have doubled down in bigotry,” Clark said by telephone. “If you are a master mason they will suspend you or punish you when you are discovered. That is not the principles of equality and meeting ‘on the level.’ I am deeply cut and concerned from this move from the Grand Lodge.”
Clark also emphasized that the decision to ban gay Freemasons is specifically a local issue and that he has heard support from Freemasons under different grand lodges across the country.
“The vast majority are absolutely appalled,” he said. “The opinion of the fraternity itself should remain as positive as ever.”
A handful of Nashville Freemasons have withdrawn from Tennessee chapters in order to speak out for the two men.
“I’m not gay myself, but I have friends who are, and I don’t think this is right; and it is something that will prevent younger members from joining the organization that has seen decreasing numbers since World War II,” Nashvillian Chase Geiser said on Monday.
Geiser, a 25-year-old Freemason who joined the order in 2011 and became a full member in 2012, said the suspension of the two West Tennessee Freemasons has cast light on a broader cultural issue within the Freemasons.
Geiser said the organization saw a spike in membership following World War II, and then a large falloff in the baby boomer generation. Now, he said, many young men are looking to align themselves with socially conscious fraternal organizations. Some are looking to find a home among Freemasons, and there is a difference of opinion between what he called “the old guard” and the new members, he said.
“The older masons have very conservative Christian values,” he said. “The younger masons are theistic. We believe in a creator, but we don’t have a problem with homosexual marriage.”
On Thursday, Geiser told The Tennessean he had heard the ban was upheld from three Freemasons who witnessed the vote.
Hodapp, who is based in Indianapolis and has followed the issues extensively, posted to his blog around midday saying that reports were trickling out of the meeting in Nashville about the vote upholding the ban.
Hodapp said he received about five anonymous emails and text messages, reporting the failure of the measure to overturn the ban. He wasn’t “too surprised” by the news, especially considering the organization is an aging one.
“It’s a tough battle between people who find discrimination against homosexuals just as distasteful as racial discrimination versus people who find it actually morally repugnant,” he said.