No. 13: While Voting for Anti-LGBT Bills, Rep. Bill Sanderson Used Grindr to Meet Men

Tennessee legislator will resign in wake of allegations, which he denies

Since he took office in 2011, Tennessee state Rep. Bill Sanderson (R-Kenton) has voted repeatedly in favor of legislation designed to harm the LGBT community. During that same time period, the 59-year-old Sanderson has also been openly soliciting sex with much younger men on Grindr, a gay hook-up and dating app, both from his home in West Tennessee and in Nashville.

Sanderson’s campaign website states he “is proudly pro-life and pro-family … [and] is leading the charge to defend the rights of the unborn and preserve the values that have defined our families for generations,” adding that he “knows that our nation was founded on conservative, Christian values.” His (now-deleted) campaign Facebook page describes Sanderson as a “Family Man, Small Business Man, Farmer, Public Servant” whose favorite activities include running, working in the yard and “spending time with my dear wife, Marjie (the person with the best heart of anyone I have ever, ever met).” (Sanderson has been married to Marjie since the fall of 2012. He has three grown children with his first wife, Valerie; they divorced in 2011.)

His voting record during his four and a half sessions on the hill back up his conservative bonafides. Sanderson introduced legislation to mandate “In God We Trust” on state license plates. He has been a co-sponsor of some of the most extreme anti-abortion legislation, including this year’s heartbill bill (which passed the House but was delayed in the Senate until next year). In 2018, Sanderson, then the chair of the State Government Subcommittee, was widely criticized for helping kill a resolution denouncing Neo-Nazis and opposing a bill to outlaw chain gangs, saying such work was not dehumanizing to prisoners. 

And Sanderson has voted in support of almost every anti-LGBT bill that has made it to the House floor. Despite having a gay son with a longterm partner. Despite sending sexually explicit messages and pictures to men almost 40 years his junior.

Sanderson’s extracurricular activities have long been an open secret around the Capitol. I, for one, have known about a set of Grindr communications for three years. But only recently, in the wake of the scandals involving House Speaker Glen Casada and his former chief of staff Cade Cothren, along with the increasing pressure to oust alleged molester Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), did sources agree to let me write about the messages and encounters.

Sanderson denies everything in this story. I will have a second newsletter later today with a longer account of the interview we had last night, in which he begged me not to run this. Sanderson plans to resign at 12 p.m. CT today, but he has known about the content of this story since last Friday, July 19. The timing of his stepping down is not a coincidence.

In the gay community, more so than in the heterosexual community, it’s not unusual for older men to have sex with much younger men. And I have not spoken to anyone who has claimed Sanderson has contacted anyone under 18 (the age of consent in Tennessee). But any relationship with a 35-year age difference, no matter how casual, contains a massive power differential — even more so if the older party also happens to be a state legislator who is serving wine to an underage drinker.

For the record, I am not the first person to write about Sanderson’s Grindr messages. In January 2014, the gossip blog The Dirty published messages Sanderson sent to an unnamed male Vanderbilt student. Although now deleted from The Dirty’s site, the messages are still available via the Wayback Machine. In them Sanderson specifically states he is a “state rep” representing Obion, Lake and Dyer Counties — his actual district — and is in town for the next five months, staying at the Hotel Indigo. He includes a selfie, ostensibly of him in the hotel, and a picture of him with another woman, possibly his wife.

Those messages are cropped, and the resolution is so low in the posted images that they don’t exactly provide convincing proof that Sanderson sent them. Catfishing is a thing, and the student doesn’t say that he met up with Sanderson. So, hypothetically, one could make an argument that they were faked, as the site has taken the messages down, and no other news outlet has followed up on them.

And Sanderson does say the messages are fakes. He says all the messages are fakes, and he showed me a fake text, ostensibly between the two of us, in an attempt to get me to kill the story. (More on that later today.) But the Grindr and text messages I have seen do appear to be authentic. They use Sanderson’s real cell phone number. Sources confirm having been told about the messages at the time by their friends who received them. And one man I interviewed said he met Sanderson at his farm in Kenton.

All of which is to say that I am not “outing” Sanderson, per se. He’s outed himself, repeatedly, to complete strangers on the internet, using his actual phone number, his actual pictures and actual description of his jobs and events that one can prove he attended, like local Rotary Club meetings. (Sanderson has also been spotted in at least one gay bar recently, but given that bachelorette parties have taken them over, that’s absolutely not evidence of anything.) Again, Sanderson vehemently denies this. But he couldn’t give me a good explanation for the messages existing, other than that one unnamed political operative in Lake County has “had it out for him.”

I know the ethics of outing can be icky. But I have long agreed with Dan Savage, the advice columnist and alt-weekly editor (who is also gay). He has written many times that it is not only acceptable but necessary to out closeted politicians who regularly cast anti-LGBT votes.

“Closet cases like [former Idaho U.S. Sen. Larry] Craig and [former Florida Gov. Charlie] Crist do real harm to the lives of other gay men and lesbians. Families are torn apart, children go without permanent homes, lives and careers destroyed,” Savage wrote in 2009. “Outing someone … is a brutal tactic and should be reserved for brutes. Craig and Crist more than qualify.”

Sanderson, during his time in office, has cast many, many votes in support of anti-LGBT legislation. In 2011, Sanderson voted to adopt HB 600, which banned municipalities from adopting ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination and overrode and nullified an ordinance that Nashville had adopted. In 2012, Sanderson voted for legislation requiring abstinence-based sex education in public schools, a bill that notably banned discussion of “gateway sexual activity.” (Never mind that premarital abstinence tends to not end up so well.)

In 2016 Sanderson signed onto a resolution denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. He then voted to defund the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Office of Diversity over a controversy surrounding the annual Sex Week and the use of gender neutral pronouns. Sanderson supported HB 1840, the bill that allowed therapists to decline to see patients if they are gay, in violation of the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics. In 2017, he voted for HB 1111, the “natural and ordinary meaning” bill, widely perceived as an effort to attack LGBT parents

Earlier this year, Sanderson voted in support of HB 1274, which would require the state to defend local school systems from lawsuits if they passed a transgender bathroom ban; in favor of HB 1151, a watered down attempt at a transgender bathroom ban; and for HB 836, which would allow adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples seeking to adopt. However, when it came up in committee, Sanderson did vote against the adoption bill, and on the floor he abstained from voting on HB 563, a bill the Tennessee Equality Project calls a “Business License to Discriminate.” (HB 1151 has been signed into law; the other three bills await passage in the Senate in 2020. Sanderson also says he has attempted to kill many other anti-LGBT bills in committee, which TEP does confirm.)

During many, if not all, of these votes, Sanderson has been on Grindr (and possibly other apps). In a Grindr profile from 2013, Sanderson, calling himself “Brian,” describes himself as being in an “open relationship.” For all I know, that may be true. As a man born in 1959 who attended the small Methodist Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., Sanderson didn’t have the liberty to come out as queer easily as I did at age 19 at Yale in 1996. (Sanderson says he was not in an open relationship and told me that if I published this story it would ruin his marriage. He denied being either bisexual or gay or having ever sexually touched a man.)

Whatever the private reality of Sanderson’s marriage, his public face is extremely at odds with the Grindr and text messages I reviewed. They all include pictures of Sanderson, including one of his naked torso and genitals. That very explicit picture has his face cropped out of it, but Sanderson is wearing the same watch in other photos. (He says the nude photo is faked, and the other pictures were stolen from his Facebook account.)

The Grindr messages that I reviewed, as in the ones posted by The Dirty, instruct the men to text him at a phone number with a 731 area code. If you Google that number, you’ll find page after page connecting that number to either the White Squirrel Winery — which Sanderson owns — or sites where it is listed as Sanderson’s cell number. The texts I saw were sent by the same number. It is the same number I used to call Sanderson for comment on this story and have texted him on since. (Again, he claims that the texts were faked.)

Those texts, in addition to including the nude photo, are frequently explicit in terms of discussing sexual activity. I’m not going to quote from the explicit parts, as Sanderson (allegedly) exchanged them with a reasonable expectation of privacy. But I will note that in his 2013 Grindr profile, which could be seen by anyone using the app, he writes, “I’ve seen a lot and done a lot, but I really haven’t had a connection with a guy and I have a burning desire to have that relationship. I like down and dirty guy to guy play too! So, I guess you might say, nothing will be held back …” (Sanderson says he did not write this.)

While some closeted men do use Grindr to sext and get off without ever meeting anyone, the messages sent by Sanderson that I have seen always suggest meeting in person. In one set, Sanderson even mentions having seen the man and his roommate at a restaurant the previous night, before asking, “Want to meet and play?” This man, who was 23 at the time, did not meet up but did exchange explicit texts with Sanderson in 2013.

One former UT Martin student connected with Sanderson on Grindr several years ago when he was 19. In 2016, WKRN-TV recorded an interview with this man but decided later not to run the story. (Sanderson says he pressured the station to kill the story.) I have spoken to multiple people who confirm the man’s account, including a friend who was told about it at the time and shown the corresponding messages and pictures. All, including the former reporter (who is no longer at WKRN), had consistent accounts of the man’s recollections.

The former student says that Sanderson messaged him on Grindr and he agreed to meet with him in person. He was studying political science, and Sanderson was a state legislator; the man says he was hoping Sanderson could offer advice in regards to getting legislative jobs in Nashville after graduation. Although he assumed Sanderson was sexually interested in him, the man says he was not attracted to the legislator because of the massive age difference. After a winery tour, the man says, Sanderson tried to massage his shoulders and otherwise hit on him in a manner that made him feel uncomfortable. Sanderson also served the man wine, despite knowing he was 19, and gave him bottles of wine to take home. (Sanderson says he verifies the identification of everyone to whom he serves wine at White Squirrel.)

The man says that Sanderson’s wife Marjie unexpectedly came home, and that he was pressured by the legislator to make up a story on the fly about why he was on the property. A year later, he says, when he was in Nashville, he received another Grindr message from Sanderson (in town for the legislative session) trying to hook up. The man did not reply.

Sanderson, again, denies any of this has ever happened. He says it is all a political hit job. And I will send out his side of the story later today — because his denials and threats, more than anything, convinced me that I absolutely did have the story right. Stay tuned.

This story has been revised to say that one of the men with whom Sanderson exchanged messages was 23 at the time, not 20.

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Also, if you have your own experiences with Sanderson (or any other closeted legislator) on Grindr or a different dating or hook-up app, do get in touch! (I am guessing by the pictures I have seen that Sanderson is not on Scruff, but feel free to prove me wrong!)