Hope, heartache and headlines

2011 brought several milestones likely to impact LGBT Georgians for years to come. Some are worth celebrating, like Vandy Beth Glenn’s win over transgender discrimination in the Georgia General Assembly, and the first openly gay man to serve in the state legislature.

Others, like the state’s lackluster response to HIV and Shorter College’s anti-gay staff policy, made us shake our heads and wonder how long it will be before LGBT equality comes to the Deep South.

The year also proved pivotal for several well-known local LGBT organizations and businesses — including Outwrite Bookstore, Positive Impact, MEGA Family Project and the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative — that announced major changes this year.

Here are our picks for the biggest local LGBT stories of the year.

Atlanta Braves: Bigoted comment leads to team PSA

When Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell hurled anti-gay slurs at fans in San Francisco over Easter weekend, the franchise responded by suspending him.

McDowell publicly apologized and underwent sensitivity training. Georgia Equality and PFLAG Atlanta asked for — and received — a meeting with the club’s president, John Schuerholz, in August. That meeting led to “Out in the Stands” night with the Braves in September with a portion of some ticket sales benefiting Georgia Equality.

The team also put out an anti-bullying public service announcement in October that includes players Chipper Jones, Brian McMann, Tim Hudson and Jason Heyward. The PSA is part of the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate” campaign and includes sexual orientation as an unacceptable reason to bully.

Shorter College makes employees sign anti-gay pledge

In October, Shorter University in Rome, Ga., ordered all employees to sign a “personal lifestyle statement” that includes this promise: “I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality.”

Gay and other employees at the conservative Christian college said they are worried about “witch hunts” while the university president publicly defended requiring employees sign the pledge or face being fired.

Mercer University in Macon, Ga., began offering domestic partner benefits to same-sex partners of employees in November.

Georgia politicians come out as gay men

State Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta) came out publicly on May 27 with a press conference after his boyfriend’s ex sent nasty emails to other members of the legislature, claming Taylor was gay and also that he misused his office by promising men jobs in exchange for sex.

Taylor denied the misuse of office but did say, “I am a gay man.” He became the first openly gay male serving in the Georgia legislature and the third openly gay state lawmaker. State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) and State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) ran as openly gay when seeking office.

According to the national Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay officials, Taylor is only the sixth openly black LGBT person to serve in a state legislature. State Rep. Bell was the first black lesbian elected to a state legislature in 2009.

Former Milton City Councilmember Alan Tart spoke to the gay media in June for the first time after taking office in 2007. While Tart listed his partner on his official Milton County website when he took office, he never sought help from Georgia LGBT organizations or activists to get elected.

Widespread public knowledge of Tart being gay, however, may have hurt him in his losing reelection bid in November. “Homophobic” robocalls were used against him during the campaign, he claimed.

Other gay candidates also didn’t fare too well this November — Pam Miller lost her bid to be the first openly gay person on the Savannah City Council and Kenneth DeLeon lost his second attempt to win a seat on the East Point City Council.

Openly gay East Point Council member Lance Rhodes did win reelection to the East Point City Council after facing a political newcomer in a runoff. Decatur City Commissioner Kecia Cunningham, first elected to the Decatur City Commission as a lesbian in 1999, retained her seat for another term after facing no opposition.

Local groups respond to black HIV stats; wait for HIV drugs grows

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention released data on Aug. 3 showing new HIV infections among black gay and bisexual men jumped 48 percent from 2006-2009 — the only subpopulation in the U.S. to experience a statistically significant increase those three years.

In response to the dire numbers, the CDC put out the first federal campaigns targeting black gay and bisexual men, including “Testing Makes Us Stronger,” set to be released in early 2012. AID Atlanta’s Evolution Project also kicked off its own media and social networking campaign featuring local models and asking black gay and bisexual men to get tested.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program waiting list continued to grow with some 2,000 people on the list since it was implemented in July 2010.

The HIV Unit of the Georgia Division of Public Health, charged with reducing those on the ADAP list as well as dealing with other HIV issues for the state, again dealt with uncertainty as its director resigned after only 16 months on the job. Activists also decried the unit’s bureaucracy, saying not enough money is going to HIV prevention. Officials with the unit denied the accusations.

Georgia makes national LGBT headlines

When CNN anchor Don Lemon, based in Atlanta, came out as gay in a New York Times article on May 16 about his memoir, “Transparent,” the local celebrity and Twitter king found himself making news rather than reporting it. He is now a popular guest at many Atlanta-based LGBT parties, fundraisers and events.

International rugby star Ben Cohen, the straight, ruggedly handsome athlete known for his prowess on the pitch, founded his StandUp Foundation in Atlanta on May 20.

Dedicated to eliminating bullying in schools and homophobia in sports, the foundation — which gets a huge boost from the Atlanta Bucks — raises money through fundraisers and the sale of StandUp brand items that are then donated to nonprofits including the Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project and U.K.’s Bully-Free Zone.

Former National Organization for Marriage blogger Louis Marinelli had his 15 minutes of fame when he came out in support of gay marriage on April 17. He said his change of heart was inspired by seeing the hundreds of pro-LGBT counter protesters at the Georgia state capitol when NOM stopped in Atlanta last year as part of its “Summer of Marriage” tour. While Marinelli is progressive on marriage, he remains a devout Republican and supporter of anti-gay GOP presidential hopeful (and former Georgia boy) Newt Gingrich.

King & Spalding is a global law firm founded in Atlanta and touts its diversity proudly, especially its recruitment of LGBT attorneys. But when the firm decided to defend the Defense of Marriage Act on behalf of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives, national gay organizations sounded off and a press conference organized by HRC and Georgia Equality were planned at the firm’s Atlanta headquarters for April 26.

The firm buckled to the pressure, saying the case was not vetted properly. Conservative lead attorney Paul Clement quit King & Spalding to join a small firm so he could take the case.

Atlanta LGBT nonprofits expand — and struggle

In March, directors of the Phillip Rush Center announced the facility received a $35,000 grant to conduct a broad needs assessment of LGBT residents living in the state. The Rush Center also nearly doubled in size to 4,100 square feet. It continues to offer meeting space for numerous groups and serve as headquarters for Georgia Equality, the Health Initiative, Atlanta Pride, In the Life Atlanta, SAGE Atlanta, MEGA Family Project and the Atlanta Lesbian & Gay Chamber of Commerce.

The Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative unveiled its new name and mission at its annual Fall Garden Party on Sept. 18. It is now “The Health Initiative — Georgia’s Voice for LGBT Health” to serve the entire LGBT community.

Positive Impact, a nonprofit that offers mental health and other services to those affected by HIV and AIDS,  moved its offices from its longtime home on Ralph McGill Boulevard to Midtown in October.

But all is not well for other LGBT organizations. YouthPride announced in December it needs to raise $40,000 by the end of the month or it will have to shut its doors in 60 days, after serving LGBT youth for 15 years. And MEGA Family Project also made pleas for more donations or it also faces closure.

Ch-ch-changes for gay businesses

When it was announced in November that gay-owned Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse would have to relocate from its landmark location at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue because rent is too high, LGBT customers began rallying to support the locally owned independent business.

Charis Books & More, the lesbian-owned feminist bookstore, and Charis Circle, its nonprofit counterpart, announced in March plans to open the Charis Feminist Center in 2012, but later said the economy had slowed fundraising.

Lesbian bar Bellissima was put up for sale, while Atlanta’s other lesbian bar, My Sister’s Room, announced it would have new owners and a new look for the New Year. They plan to make the East Atlanta hotspot a sports bar during the day and early evening hours when games are on, but keep it a nightclub when the games are over.

In other gay bar news, Cockpit — billed as a laidback spot for “scruffy” gay men — opened in Grant Park in April, and the Heretic celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Finally, after 44 years, gay-owned Poster Hut on Cheshire Bridge Road closed in December due to a lackluster economy.

Elders, Latinos organize for support, equality

Older LGBT residents want their needs met, too. Seniors started gathering at the Rush Center with the new Atlanta chapter of SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders). ZAMI NOBLA (National Organization of Black Lesbians on Aging) was also founded.

Georgia’s gay Latinos also organized to combat HB 87, an immigration bill that some LGBT activists said unfairly targets people of color. LGBT nonprofit Southerners on New Ground supported a boycott of the state because of the new law, while the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, led by an openly gay man, did not. Several LGBT businesses and churches signed on as sanctuary zones for those impacted by the law, including Charis, Radial Cafe, Mondo Homo, Gentle Spirit Christian Church, GetEQUAL GA, Decatur United Church of Christ, Queer Justice League and Outwrite.

Fallout from illegal Eagle gay bar raid continues

In 2010, the city of Atlanta settled for more than $1 million with Eagle plaintiffs for the police department’s wrongful raid on the Midtown gay bar.

This year, investigations into the raid led to several officers being fired and others disciplined, the controversial Red Dog Unit (which assisted in the Eagle raid) was disbanded, two maore lawsuits were filed and the city reached a settlement of $120,000 with another group of Eagle plaintiffs.

Mayor Kasim Reed and APD Chief George Turner also attended an LGBT town hall forum in November to further discuss the 2009 raid that still haunts many in Atlanta’s gay community.

Grassroots effort helps Atlanta LGBT homeless youth

The Atlanta chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence set up a 24-hour hotline for its Saint Lost & Found fund to find emergency shelter for homeless LGBT youth in Atlanta.

The Sisters also began raising money for the fund to house youths in a motel or put them with gay foster families. In December, the group started renting a house in the West End to serve as temporary home for youth.


Top photo: From left: Atlanta Braves coach Roger McDowell made headlines when he shouted anti-gay slurs at San Francisco Giants fans. State Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta) came out pubicly May 27. CNN anchor Don Lemon also came out in May. (Photos by Dyana Bagby, Lemon publicity photo)