Robin Shahar's name is easily recognized by many in Atlanta's LGBT communities — and likely by many activists across the country. Recently appointed Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's adviser on LGBT issues, she has a history of fighting for equality.
Shahar graduated at the top of her class from Emory Law School in 1990, and in 1991 she was offered a job by Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers.
However, after Bowers learned Shahar was planning a Jewish commitment ceremony with her lesbian partner, he rescinded the job offer saying, essentially, that because she was gay she would not be able to enforce the state's sodomy law that he successfully defended to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986.
Meet Robin Shahar, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s new LGBT adviser
Shahar responded by suing Bowers. She lost at the district level in 1993 and in her appeal argued Bowers violated her rights to free association and equal treatment. In 1995, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Shahar, stating her constitutional rights were violated.
But in 1997, her case went before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Shahar lost again. She tried to get her case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1998 the high court declined to review her case.
Also in 1997, Bowers had to resign his post and drop out of running for governor after he revealed he’d committed adultery with a woman who worked in his office. Adultery, like sodomy, was also illegal in Georgia.
While Shahar continued her lawsuit against Bowers, she secured a job in the city of Atlanta’s law department in 1993. She has worked there ever since, rising to the rank of Chief Counsel. She now works on government issues, from pension reform to public art.
On Aug. 14, Reed appointed Shahar to be his adviser on LGBT issues — a change of strategy for the mayor, who had previously said that he preferred to include openly gay people in leadership positions without having a designated adviser.
The announcement of Shahar’s new job came approximately two weeks before Reed made his formal announcement on Aug. 26 that he is seeking reelection. So far, Reed is not facing a strong challenger.
“In addition to her keen legal mind, she is well-respected in the community and will be an effective ambassador,” Reed said in a statement announcing Shahar’s appointment. “My administration and I are dedicated to eliminating barriers to equality, fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and engaging the LGBT community across the city.”
‘We need to be seen’
In her new role, Shahar is meeting with various LGBT groups in Atlanta, including HRC, Georgia Equality and the Health Initiative.
“These are high profile groups, but it’s also important to me to meet with less high-profile groups and different minorities within our community,” she said.
Shahar said she will also look at ways the city government can continue to be inclusive of LGBT residents and employees and eventually present ideas to the mayor who will decide if they are feasible.
Shahar acknowledges she has a bit of learning curve coming into this job.
“I am out of touch with challenges and fears confronted by younger or more newly out members of the LGBT community,” she said.
“I look forward to understanding better what impedes their ability to be fully out and I look forward to working with a mayor who is committed to people being safe when being fully out, and in that context making Atlanta an even better environment to work, visit and enjoy,” she said.
She also wants to inspire people to share their stories.
“When my case was going on, numerous people said to me they had no idea you could be fired for being gay,” she said.
“People need to come out, we need to be seen, people need to see examples of discrimination against real people and see real stories to understand that good people are hurt by discrimination,” she said. “Shahar vs. Bowers was one of those stories.”
Eagle raid aftermath
Reed won the 2009 election against Mary Norwood by the slimmest of margins and was trounced in District 6, known for its large gay and lesbian population. Many gay voters supported Norwood because she backed marriage equality.
In December 2012, Reed said he had evolved on the issue and now supports marriage equality. But he’s faced continued criticism by some in the city for his handling of the aftermath of the Atlanta police raid on the Atlanta Eagle, a popular gay leather bar in Midtown.
Shahar said as a city employee, her job as LGBT adviser to the mayor will not include outreach to LGBT voters.
“He’s not discussed [his reelection campaign] with me,” Shahar said. “This is a role as a city employee, so what you are talking about is outside that role.”
Shahar also worked in the city’s law department during the contentious Eagle lawsuits which followed the unconstitutional raid. While the raid occurred before Reed took office, his administration defended the city against the lawsuits.
“I was not a lawyer on those cases,” Shahar said. “But I was at the mayor’s press conference when he talked about the Eagle resolution [in December 2012] and how he spoke about his outrage this happened and his sincere apology for what occurred.”
Shahar said she knows it is hard for people without a legal background to understand, but while the lawsuits were ongoing, Reed could not make a simple apology and at the same time be a good steward of the taxpayer’s money.
“The mayor’s job is very different. He is very sincere in his beliefs about equality. And the law department is very sincere about protecting the city legally,” she said.
“The law is very technical and complex and you make decisions on lots of different factors, and one of those factors is being a good steward to the taxpayers. We as lawyers have to look at the law and do what is in the best interests of the taxpayers. And that may look different from what those see from the non-legal world,” Shahar said.
She also said she knows her colleagues working on those cases were not anti-gay.
“I understood my colleagues were defending the city legally. I felt the ways they were portrayed in the press were inaccurate, and while doing a very good job for the city, I also knew they are committed to equality based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said.
In the end, the city spent approximately $3 million settling with Eagle plaintiffs as well as paying for an investigation into the raid.
As part of Reed’s outreach to gay constituents, he also appointed two Atlanta police LGBT liaisons and an Atlanta police LGBT advisory group that now only meets once every few months.