HIV rates, youth homelessness among topics at Atlanta LGBT youth mayoral forum

Out Front Theatre is no stranger to playing host to plays or musicals rife with political controversy, but last night it was political theater to take the stage.

Nine of Atlanta’s candidates participated in the Atlanta LGBTQIA Youth Mayoral Forum on Aug. 29, sponsored by Lost-n-Found Youth, Joining Hearts, Rainbros., Point Foundation, Pride Alliance, Creative Approach, Georgia State University Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the Emory LGBT Alumni. Notably absent was Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, and City Councilwoman Mary Norwood missed a large portion due to another engagement.

James Brian Yancey, founder of Rainbros., moderated the discussion, and kicked things off with a question about the rainbow crosswalks recently installed at the intersection of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue. Most of the candidates agreed it was an appropriate use of funds — though Michael Sterling said he would have rather used private funds.

“I think that it is important that we openly say who we are, and I think that although it’s a symbolic gesture, I think that it’s extremely important, especially in the heart of our city, for people to know that as a city, we are inclusive and we respect a diversity of people,” Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said.

Former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman echoed her sentiments, saying the city needs both services and “tangible symbols” to share its message of standing up for its LGBT community.

One of the areas of highest concern to LGBT youth in the audience was that of youth homelessness. It’s an area that former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, one of two openly LGBT mayoral candidates, knows personally, having run away from home at age 15.

“We failed to prepare housing for an array of situations for people — homeless youth, people who live in poverty, seniors,” she said. “I set out on a period of self-destruction that I think a lot of you have probably experienced … We have to find safe places for kids until they can figure their way out of there.”

Other issues brought up during the discussion included transgender “bathroom bills,” how candidates felt about the president’s tweeted transgender military ban — all nine present said they did not support it — and HIV issues.

‘Exaggerated ignorance’

Sterling called Georgia’s HIV criminalization laws “exaggerated ignorance” based on a “fundamental lack of understanding of how HIV and AIDS are spread.”

Former State Sen. Vincent Fort called the laws homophobic, and referenced a resolution he introduced in the state Legislature to form a study committee on the topic.

“I am hoping that someone will take that up in the Legislature now that I’m gone, but here in the city of Atlanta any mayor is going to have to educate the public and use the bully pulpit to make sure the public at large knows how HIV is criminalized in this state and how we can work against it,” he said.

Lance Bottoms had a different take on the laws — though she too called them homophobic and said they unfairly targeted the LGBT community, she said it was important that all individuals disclose their sexual health to their partners, whether it’s HIV, Chlamydia or gonorrhea.

With Atlanta’s skyrocketing HIV rate, Yancey made note that these were some of the most important questions the candidates would be asked during the forum. On the subject of the city’s role in providing resources and education about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, candidates broke into a thoughtful discussion.

“I understand that many times in government, we think we are reaching out to the community and we have effectively communicated and we have not,” Norwood said. “I want to be the mayor to make sure that when we launch information, we are doing it in a way that it truly gets to the people that we are trying to get to.”

Aman said “full stop” PrEP needs to be available to anyone who needs it. Sterling and Council President Ceasar Mitchell discussed different partnership opportunities available, including with Georgia Equality, other municipalities in the Atlanta area and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lance Bottoms added that if elected, she plans to appoint a city director of public health to help address the situation.

Fort said it was “unforgivable” and “immoral” that City Hall has not previously addressed the epidemic, and former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves made a point to discuss the commission’s HIV/AIDS task force, which is now in transition to become a full-fledged permanent committee.

Woolard said it’s vital that the community acknowledge the problem, for starters.

“You just have to name it. Young black men who have sex with men. There are other people who get HIV too, but the point of the epidemic in this community is that. We’ve got to talk about it. We’ve got to put people out in front,” she said.

Laban King, also a LGBT candidate, made a point that pills don’t matter if LGBT youth feel they don’t matter.

“If you don’t give me a reason to live, then why should I take a pill?” he said. “These people need hope. … We need to let them know that their lives mean something, that they have value and once they matter, then they’ll start to take care of themselves. But until then, you can have as many clinics as you want, you can write as many papers or whatever you’re saying you’re doing, but it’s not gonna work.”

View the forum in its entirety: