Editor's note: State Rep. Karla Drenner has responded to this editorial. You can read her letter here.
The Georgia House of Representatives approved March 3 a resolution honoring Cathy Woolard, the state's first openly gay elected official. But despite being sponsored by our first openly gay state legislator, the resolution never uses the word "gay" and does not mention Woolard's historic first.
Woolard made history in 1997 when she was elected to the District 6 seat on the Atlanta City Council, becoming the first openly gay elected official in Georgia. She made history again in 2001, when she was elected Atlanta City Council president, the first woman and the first openly gay person to hold the post.
Guess which one of those milestones made it into the resolution approved by the Georgia House of Representatives earlier this month?
Gay state rep honors gay politician and lobbyist – only without the ‘gay’
That’s right. Discussing Woolard’s experience in political office, the resolution notes, “she defeated four challengers to become the first woman to serve as council president.”
To make the exclusion more ironic, the resolution is sponsored by State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates). Drenner made history herself in 1998, when she was elected to the Georgia House, becoming Georgia’s first openly gay state legislator.
The bill’s first co-sponsor is Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), the second openly gay member of the Georgia General Assembly and the first African-American lesbian state legislator in the nation. The list of other co-sponsors reads like a who’s who of gay-friendly state representatives, including Pat Gardner, Margaret Kaiser and Stephane Stuckey Benfield.
The resolution lauds Woolard’s worthy contributions for a variety of organizations, including serving as a vice president of the international relief agency CARE, as a public affairs consultant for a variety of non-profit groups, and staff stints with various companies. Interestingly, it does not note that she has lobbied for Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT political group.
The resolution does include many other organizations and companies by name. But unless you know that the Human Rights Campaign (despite its generic name) is the nation’s largest gay political group, that the Gill Foundation supports LGBT causes, and that Southern Voice was Atlanta’s former gay newspaper, there is nothing in the resolution that would immediately tip you off that Woolard is gay and has fought for LGBT equality.
That’s likely not a coincidence. Such resolutions lauding various individuals are usually rather rote, with approval virtually guaranteed. But Drenner complained a few years ago that she thought some of her resolutions were being blocked as a form of subtle discrimination.
Bell also employed a similar closeting strategy last year when she sponsored a resolution honoring late activist Allen Thornell, who served as executive director of Georgia Equality during the fight to ban gay marriage in Georgia; lobbied for LGBT and HIV causes, ran for the state legislature as an openly gay candidate, and worked for a number of other progressive causes, including working with Woolard at CARE.
The Thornell resolution also never used the word “gay” and did not directly state that he fought for gay rights or was openly gay himself.
At the time, Bell said she thought the omission was necessary and worthwhile in order to get the resolution passed. As the GA Voice reported last year:
Bell said she made the decision as part of the give-and-take in politics — especially in the midst of the resignation of House Speaker Glenn Richardson and her uncertainty as to how senior House members might react to the word “gay.”
“It was one of those hard decisions,” Bell said. “I’m very pleased with the resolution, his family is pleased with it and so are his friends. For me, this was an issue of picking battles. And I think Allen is pleased.”
To be certain, all of these leaders — Woolard, Thornell, Drenner and Bell — are more than just their sexual orientation. All also work on a variety of issues, not just LGBT rights.
Just as certainly, a resolution that openly praises a gay person for accomplishments that include fighting for gay equality is unlikely to receive support from the majority of the Georgia General Assembly, which is held by the Republican Party and also populated with many more-conservative Democrats.
It’s one thing to utilize a subtle strategy to pass laws that benefit LGBT Georgians — like a general bullying bill that will help gay students, or a broader bill about hospital visitation when LGBT people are particularly vulnerable in these areas. Such an approach can be necessary to keep progress moving, even slowly, in a hostile legislature.
But I can’t help but wonder about the value of a resolution — which is designed to honor an individual — if we have to hide our heroes in the closet in order for them to get it.
How much does it mean, really, to win praise from a body that would refuse to honor you if it knew who you really are and the causes you really care about? Especially when that body has, as in the case of the marriage amendment, actively worked to deny your rights?
The resolution lauding Cathy Woolard concludes: “It is only right and proper that this distinguished Georgian be recognized and honored for her many contributions to the state and the country and for her noble work to make society better for all citizens.”