After more than a decade in the state legislature, new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has some advice for advancing LGBT rights: Don’t underestimate the value of allies and a good defense, but also don’t be afraid to lose a vote on proactive legislation.
“Even during times that the governor may veto your items or the future seems a long way away, you have to keep getting votes, because that is how you develop a path to winning. Keep putting it up there,” Reed told the Georgia Voice in a wide-ranging interview last week.
“If you keep your test votes, you have a baseline of where you are on an issue that is vital to the community,” he said. “And by not pressing, you lose the sharpness that is required for true change, and you don’t know who your friends are.”
Reed knows of what he speaks. As a member of the Georgia General Assembly, he sponsored the House version of the hate crimes bill that passed in 2000. A longtime goal of LGBT lobbyists, the measure was the first major piece of pro-gay legislation in state history to become law — and the last.
To avoid a fight over including sexual orientation by name, the hate crimes law addressed crimes motivated by “bias or prejudice.” In 2004, it was struck down by the state Supreme Court for being too vague, one of two major blows in a brutal year for gay Georgians that also included passage of a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Reed was elected to the state House in 1998, and served two terms before running for the state Senate, where he served from 2002 until 2009, when he resigned to focus on his bid to move down a block to Atlanta City Hall.
During those years, he was also part of a coalition of progressive legislators, mostly intown Democrats, who fought hard to defeat the marriage amendment. They also mobilized to fight an expected ban on gay adoptions, which has been rumored in every legislative session since 2004, but has not yet materialized into a full-blown fight.
“If you did not have a cadre of individuals [in the legislature] who support the LGBT community … you would have a level of hostility directed at lesbian and gay people that would have had a chilling effect citywide,” Reed said.
LGBT Georgians can’t take those lawmakers for granted, he added.
“I think the first mistake is to not embrace and treat your base well,” Reed said. “And if you believe that the work your base does is easy, then you are creating an environment where you will never get there, because folks that are with you in their hearts don’t think that they are appreciated.”
Reed’s advice that LGBT Georgians need to value and support allies is partially personal: Given his record in the General Assembly, he hoped gay voters would flock to his mayoral campaign.
But what constitutes being an LGBT ally in the state legislature turned out to not be the same as in the Atlanta mayoral race, where all of the other serious candidates backed gay marriage.
While Reed insists that he believes in “absolute full legal equality” for gay couples, he supports those rights through the separate status of civil unions – not marriage.
“I believe that gay and lesbian couples should have every right and benefit that married couples have, but I do have reservations when it comes to marriage — that is my position today,” Reed said in his April 7 interview with the Georgia Voice.
“I continue to suffer the consequences that come with it, repeatedly, and it is painful to me, but I know that there are folks that feel that my position is painful to them,” he said.
The stand was enough to drive many gay and lesbian voters to support Reed’s two chief opponents in the mayoral race, City Council President Lisa Borders and City Councilmember Mary Norwood. Georgia Equality endorsed Borders in the general election, then declined to issue an endorsement in the runoff election between Reed and Norwood.
Still, many prominent gay leaders backed Norwood, and Reed acknowledges that while he won the election by the slimmest of margins, he lost District 6 – home to Atlanta’s highest concentration of gay voters – by a landslide.
“Despite having a record that I think was overwhelmingly stronger than any other individual in the race, and having a record that is stronger than any sitting elected official in the state,” he added.
Months later, Reed is clearly still stung by the rejection. During the course of a 45-minute interview, he repeatedly returned to the subject, stressing that he remains a strong ally on lesbian and gay issues, and he hopes gay residents won’t judge him only by his stand on their marriage rights, which he continues to oppose.
“I look at my relationship with the LGBT community as an 11-year relationship, not a six month relationship so … I would hope that we have a position going forward where we don’t throw our relationship away over that issue,” Reed said.
And there is plenty of work to be done. The city of Atlanta is an oasis for LGBT people in the state and the region, offering an inclusive non-discrimination policy, a domestic partner registry for city residents, and domestic partner benefits for city employees.
While a handful of smaller jurisdictions in the metro Atlanta area have enacted similar policies, much of the rest of the state is a relative desert when it comes to gay rights.
Reed says he is willing to use his bully pulpit to help change that.
After his administration is finalized and Atlanta Pride is over in October, he hopes to convene gay leaders to discuss the idea of putting on a gay rights conference similar to Philadelphia’s Equality Forum, which the city would help sponsor.
“I want to see if it is something that leaders in the GLBT community will both embrace and support,” Reed said. “I don’t want anyone to feel like my desire to do this is political in nature.”
Reed also hopes to continue to influence the state legislature, listing “continued vigilance about issues related to gay adoption” and a state statute to end employment discrimination against LGBT people as priorities.
“That’s why I hope that over time, through the example that I live, that the citizens in the GLBT community will understand that while I haven’t taken the positions around marriage equality [they would like] … I had a pretty good record in the Senate and House that I think continues to be useful, and I am certainly willing to be an advocate on a range of issues as I have been,” he said.
Responding to the Eagle raid
There is also plenty to do here at the city level. Despite Atlanta’s progressive policies, Reed took office with the city embroiled in its biggest gay controversy in years.
Responding to two anonymous citizen complaints alleging drugs and sexual activity at the Eagle, a gay leather bar, the Atlanta Police Department initiated a months-long undercover investigation that culminated in a September 2009 raid.
More than two dozen officers, including the paramilitary Red Dog unit, stormed the bar, forcing patrons to lie on the floor for more than an hour while officers searched them and ran background checks on their identification. Several patrons at the bar also said they were treated roughly and endured anti-gay epithets in the raid, which is now the subject of a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations.
Reed, who criticized the raid as a candidate, drew fire from some LGBT Atlantans last month when he referred to the lawsuit as a “financial threat” to the city. The remark was made in a much longer written statement about the raid issued to WSB-TV.
Of the many lessons that Reed has learned since becoming mayor, one is that he can’t speak as freely as he did on the campaign trail.
“Once you become mayor, my actions and my words take on a level of impact that you don’t have when you are a candidate,” Reed said last week, when asked about the comment. “There is active litigation going on with monetary damages, and I lead a city that is in pretty tough financial straits.”
“When we get a judgment against us, we are just like a private company and we have to write the check,” he said. “So while my heart might feel one way, I have a responsibility to 565,000 citizens and I have to be more measured than I would prefer to be, and than I think the citizens of Atlanta would prefer me to be.
“I think that certainly individuals in the gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender communities would like for me to express how I feel in no uncertain terms, but were I to do that right now, any expression of my feelings could be part of the evidence in active litigation against the city of Atlanta,” Reed said.
Asked whether he is talking directly with the city law department about how to handle the civil case, and about the possibility that settling the lawsuit could actually save the city money by avoiding months of legal fees, Reed was reluctant to answer — but hinted that he isn’t taking a bystander approach.
“I just think that I hope that people will give me time, I’ll just say that,” he responded.
During the interview, Reed also told Georgia Voice he was troubled by some media coverage and comments that he felt lost sight of the fact that the raid occurred prior to his administration.
“If you read some of the coverage you would believe that the Eagle raid happened when I was mayor,” he said.
A raid like the Atlanta Police Department conducted at the Eagle won’t take place in Atlanta again, or those involved will face “dire circumstances,” Reed pledged.
Although the Atlanta Police Department employs an LGBT liaison officer, she was not included in the investigation into the Eagle, and only learned about the raid when asked about it by media the next day.
The raid, which generated large protests at the Eagle and City Hall, yielded no arrests on drug or sex charges, although eight employees were cited for business license violations related to alleged “adult dancing.” All who appeared in court last month either had their charges dismissed or were found not guilty.
Reed will not have a designated LGBT liaison for his mayoral office, preferring instead a policy of full inclusion that puts gay people in prominent positions based on merit.
Of the eight top staffers he has hired since taking office, he noted that two are gay: Deputy Chief Operating Officer Luz Borrero, a lesbian reappointed from Shirley Franklin’s administration, and Deputy Communications Director Reese McCranie, who worked for Reed’s campaign and is not only openly gay, but openly married to a man.
“When there is a meeting to set policy for the city of Atlanta, there are eight people in the room besides me, and two of them are gay or lesbian; and it’s not even a thought — their voices are part of the global discussion,” the mayor said.
But Reed said he plans to add another LGBT police liaison, so that in the future there will be “a minimum of two.”
“I believe in the approach of full integration, so the notion that an event like the Eagle raid would be done without [the LGBT liaison] being aware of it would be dealt with with an appropriate level of severity,” Reed said. “That will not happen in my administration, and if it did, there would be dire circumstances as a result.”
Reed also reiterated the promise he made as a candidate that a raid like the Eagle would not take place under his leadership.
“As I said it, I will live it: Nothing like that will occur while I am mayor,” he said.
Photo by Bo Shell