Larry Pellegrini has spent roughly 30 years championing progressive causes and fighting for LGBTQ equality at the Georgia State Capitol. He first got involved after working with none other than Southern Voice under Chris Cash and Laura Douglas-Brown.
He is now the executive director of Georgia Rural Urban Summit, which connects rural and urban progressives. Pellegrini also serves on the board of directors for Georgia Stonewall Democrats, the LGBT political group. Most of all, his work brings together different groups with different goals to then unite under shared values.
Georgia Voice spoke with Pellegrini to share stories nearly lost to time (or one too many buried files).
How did you end up becoming a lobbyist?
[It started when] I left my business career. I worked in Human Resources. I already felt good working with people all the time. And I recently had come out. I was sort of a workaholic. I kept up with current events, but I didn’t really know the gay community at all.
Southern Voice was where I went to to volunteer. At that point, [newspaper founder] Chris Cash said, “We need a list of organizations with a one-line description and a contact that we can publish every week.” In calling around, I started joining all the organizations [laughs]. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. You come out, they give you a boyfriend and a dog, and your life is set!
Seems intimidating. How were things at first?
I didn’t have a clue about the place [Georgia State Capitol]! If I had known what it was like, I may never have set foot in the place. It’s really crazy. Some of the legislators, after I introduced myself, they tore up my card. In the elevator, I got spit on. I didn’t internalize it. I took it more as a challenge of outmaneuvering our opponents. Sodomy reform was the first thing we worked on, and I didn’t realize it was never going to pass. Most of the legislators had never even said the word sodomy out loud. At that point, I was the first openly gay lobbyist. There had been AIDS lobbyists before, but this was for LGBTQ politics.
What are some of your defining moments?
I didn’t identify with it at the time, but the Queer Nation organization became a primary group here with the Cracker Barrel campaign [protesting the company’s refusal to hire gay workers]. This came up a month after I started on the Capitol. Getting involved was probably the best thing that had ever happened to me. We protested at the restaurants every other Sunday, and lined up like other customers to be seated. Once we had all the spots in the restaurant, we would get up and make speeches one by one.
It was a hugely creative campaign. The Cracker Barrel campaign influenced our national politics, like [taking on] domestic partnership. The only time anybody from the public was allowed to come to the podium at City Council was during our fight for domestic partnership.
What can we expect this session?
The community is probably going to see a shutting down of this year’s version of RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. This year, the right wing is so tied to adoption. They’re so clear that they want to do this in order to prevent placing children with gay couples. There’s no war on Christianity, no discrimination there.
I have sources that help us confirm what might happen or might be successful. I feel good that the governor will not back down in denying RFRA. Especially in an election year, the Republicans will have a scorecard that they want to run on that will have some things that we [the LGBTQ community] won’t like. Probably this coming week we’ll see an anti-abortion bill.
Do you get a sense that it’s willful ignorance from lawmakers, in terms of discriminating with “religious freedom”?
I have a million examples to support any answer to that. You have the true believers, the people who have a lifetime of Bible reading that gives them no other worldview beyond that. There’s nothing you can say to them. Then you have others who just don’t like change, or the historically rapid change as far as views of gay people have evolved over the years. It bothers them. They maybe don’t know where to go next. Then there are those who just want to be disruptive. It reinforces their biases and they jump on it. Then they bring in other things, whether it’s racism or another agenda.
What gives you hope or excites you about progressivism in the South?
Generationally, in the ‘90s they became involved when somebody led, but the leaders didn’t always stay very long. I think getting young people involved is one of the keys to getting what’s on the table now finally over the finish line: hate crimes, non-discrimination, RFRA. We just need to knock it out so it doesn’t come back. [I feel] the excitement of seeing these young, new, diverse people coming into the process. There’s now Latinos and Asian Americans that are there today. Whether our opponents like it or not, we’re right across the table from them.