Activist seeks to be first openly gay Fulton County commissioner

Joan Garner, a lesbian candidate for the Fulton County Commission District 6 post, credits Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson as a major influence in her interest in community activism and politics.

“He ignited the flame in me to look at working in my community and working from a grassroots perspective,” Garner, 58, said in an interview at Danneman’s Coffee in the Old Fourth Ward, just around the corner from where she lives with her partner of 11 years, Jane Morrison.

In 1989, Jackson was the first mayor in the city’s history to appoint senior LGBT advisers.

Other mentors Garner credits for inspiring her activism include Johnetta Cole, past president of Spelman College, and from within the LGBT community, people like Suzanne Pharr, a co-founder of Southerners on New Ground.

Support from the LGBT community is important in her campaign, said Garner, who is running as a Democrat. If elected to the Fulton Commission, she would be the first openly gay person to serve on that board.

“There have been so many firsts before me,” Garner said. “I’m just standing on the shoulders of so many who have come before me.”

It’s “absolutely” time to have an openly gay person on the county commission, she said.

“We’re everywhere. I think with my experience I can bring a fresh new perspective to the county,” she said.

At press time, no other candidates had announced bids for the District 6 post on the Fulton Commission. Qualifying is set for April 26-April 30. The primary will be July 20 and the general election on Nov. 2.

Garner’s experience in community service and management includes serving as president and CEO of the Historic District Development Corporation, a community-based, nonprofit organization that facilitates the preservation and revitalization of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic District as well as other historic/preservation communities.

She was also executive director of the Southern Partners Fund, a community-based public foundation committed to equal rights, and co-wrote a book about philanthropy and social change, “Robin Hood was Right.”

“If a chance presents itself to look at how you might further effect change, working as a public servant is also a role,” she said.

Garner seeks the post Nancy Boxill has held for 23 years. But Garner said her decision to run was not based on Boxill’s retirement.

“Actually, I have been thinking about this for some time. Given my length of service and my work in the community, this would be a good time,” she said.

Out candidates increase

Garner has already begun fundraising and is currently seeking political endorsements for the race. On her campaign team are Ken Britt and Beth Schapiro, who also served on the team that helped Alex Wan win his seat last year on the Atlanta City Council. Wan is the first openly gay man elected to the council as well as the first Asian American.

In 2003, Mitzi Bickers, former Atlanta School Board president, came out as a lesbian during her unsuccessful bid for the Fulton County Commission chair. She is now a management analyst in Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office of Human Services and pastor for Emmanuel Baptist Church.

Denis Dison, spokesperson for the national Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said there is a noticeable increase in openly gay candidates running for office. The organization has endorsed some 66 candidates so far this year.

“It’s really kind of unprecedented at this time of year [the number of openly gay candidates]. We’ve set a goal of 112 this year and it certainly looks like we are meeting the pace,” Dison said.

Correction: This article has been corrected from an earlier version, which had reported that Garner is seeking an at-large seat for which all Fulton County residents are eligible to vote. The incorrect information was provided by a Fulton County elections employee. The seat Garner seeks is elected only by voters who live in Fulton’s District 6.

Photo by Dyana Bagby