When Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called Lee Schreter on Dec. 11 to tell her was announcing publicly his support of marriage equality, she whooped out loud.
“And I had a smile pasted on my face the rest of the day,” she recalled.
Schreter first met Reed about 15 years ago when Reed began working as a new attorney at the same firm where she was a partner. Over the years, Reed became close friends with Schreter and her partner, De Linda Bunnell, who have been together 31 years and were married last year in New York.
Reed credits Schreter with being perhaps the most influential person in his recent decision to support marriage equality rather than just civil unions.
“Kasim has been a good friend and I recognize people move along in their own process,” Schreter said. “I always believed Kasim would get to the right place on this.”
Last year, Schreter and Bunnell traveled to New York for a legal marriage in a church.
Reed thought seriously of attending, but said he decided not to go because he thought it would be “hypocritical.”
But he continued to have conversations with Schreter, his father, and also his chief of staff, Candace Dyer, a religious woman. All told him he was wrong from the beginning and he should support marriage equality.
When openly gay Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan got the council to pass a resolution Dec. 3 stating its support for gay marriage, Reed realized the time was right to make his own public announcement by signing the resolution.
“There was no anticipation of me signing [the resolution] … but it did present what I thought an appropriate moment. And I think so much in life is timing these moments,” Reed said.
“The fact of the matter is equal protection matters. There shouldn’t be a cadre of people who don’t have access to the same rights I do. That’s the bottom line,” he added.
Critics, including some in the LGBT community, charged the mayor’s new position is simply a political move — he is running for reelection in 2013.
In 2009, Reed won a tough run-off election against Mary Norwood, an open supporter of gay marriage, but he lost District 6, home to the city’s gayest neighborhoods, by a wide margin.
Reed dismisses accusations he is doing this for political reasons. He said by supporting marriage equality, he is actually hurting his political chances because the majority of Atlantans don’t support it and most certainly the majority of conservative Georgians don’t support it.
Reed said he has received many calls from religious people who said they are disappointed with his decision.
But Reed points to his long history of supporting LGBT rights when he was a state representative and a state senator, including sponsoring a hate crimes bill (which was later struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court) and voting against the 2004 constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Reed continues to feel he has been treated unfairly, even viciously, by the gay press during his entire term as mayor.
“I’d like someone to show me a mayor who has done more than me,” he said. “The politics around this decision [to support marriage equality] are not good for me.”
Andra Gillespie is an associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America.”
Gillespie said she takes Reed at his word this was a personal decision, but in a political context, there is no denying that Americans are increasingly in favor of gay marriage, and the mayor does not face major public vilification over his stand.
“In the African-American community there wasn’t a backlash against President Barack Obama,” she said. “It is safer to do now than a year ago, than five years ago.”
Praise for Reed’s stand
Since Reed’s announcement Dec. 11, he has received much praise — from Atlanta’s own LGBT community as well as nationally — for supporting same-sex marriage.
Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, a rising star in the Democratic Party like Reed, congratulated Reed via Twitter on Dec. 12.
Gillespie said Reed, 43, is a young man and has a long political career ahead.
“Suffice to say he is going to have public profile for decades. He does have a national role as a Democrat surrogate and he will be in that role either in an elected or non-elected capacity,” she said.
“By stating his support of [gay marriage] he is signaling to everyone that this is something that is going to be in his portfolio,” she added.
Schreter said she knows Reed didn’t come out in support of marriage equality for political reasons.
“I think that’s unfair to say. I think people can evolve,” she said. “Look at the president and the entire American public.”
Civil unions not enough
Reed said it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge President Obama’s role in making the environment more welcoming to other elected officials to state publicly they support marriage equality.
He credited Atlanta’s LGBT community — including a petition of more than 5,000 signatures asking him to support marriage equality, his friendship with people such as Harry Knox and also Phillip Rush, an early supporter of Reed’s who died in 2009 — for keeping his mind open to change.
In the end, though, it was Schreter who was the key.
“Even after 30 years, being able to say we were married was life-changing,” Schreter said tearfully.
“I still get emotional. It’s just so important and that is what I conveyed to the mayor. I know it is his belief that this is a civil rights struggle and he wants all people treated fairly and equally under the law,” she added. “He came to understand over time that a civil union is not equivalent to be able to say you’re married.”
The mayor won’t say what, if any, political aspirations he has other than seeking to be reelected as Atlanta’s mayor next year. But he said that he intends to try to change the conversation in Georgia on the issue of gay marriage.
“I think that it is very important that people who evolve share how they got there in their thinking,” he said. “And I think because I am one of highest profile Democrats in the state of Georgia and I govern the largest city in the state of Georgia, my position matters as we change the conversations and change people’s minds.”
And while some may argue the mayor did not evolve fast enough, Reed said he can take the heat that comes with the job.
“I have a great deal of peace in my spirit … I did it in my own time and way,” he said.
Top photo: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed credits Lee Schreter (right) and her wife, De Linda Bunnell, with helping change his mind on marriage equality. (Reed photo by Dyana Bagby; Schreter courtesy photo)