The 2020 presidential election was unprecedented in ways we’ve never seen or could have imagined. The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris saw an almost immediate reversal of efforts by the former administration to restrict the rights of the LGBTQ+ community that we had fought so hard for. 2020 was also an unprecedented year in the election of LGBTQ+ candidates, with over 220 wins across the various levels of government.
While federal legislation and executive orders affect all of us, local and state efforts to systematically strip away our rights have just as much impact and can set the stage for actions on the federal level. Our power lies in our ability to impact those decisions that affect us by making sure we exert our control over who represents us, not only at the federal level, but just as importantly, at the local level.
It wasn’t until I came across the Mayors Against LGBTQ Discrimination coalition that I started to think about the impact local politicians have at the federal level, and I wanted to know more. Joseph Geierman, the mayor of Doraville, Georgia, was gracious enough to sit down with me to discuss his experience and thoughts on the influence of local politics at the national level and the work that the coalition of mayors does and is doing.
What made you decide to get into politics?
My involvement in elected office started with volunteering in my community. I have been active in Doraville, Georgia, a small inner suburb of metro Atlanta, since moving here in 2001. I have done different things; this includes going to public meetings, serving as president of our neighborhood association, and doing a stint on the Planning Commission. In 2017 we had a council member retiring, and I tried to recruit other people to run for office but wasn’t successful in finding anyone. I realized I shouldn’t ask people to do a job I wasn’t willing to do myself and made the decision to get into the race.
Have you always been out?
I’ve been out since I was 18. Coming out in the ’90s was a very different experience than I think people have today. When I moved to Doraville in 2001, people knew I was gay, but it still seemed like a significant barrier to being elected to public office.
With that said, our city elected its first gay council member in 2007, so things have been changing here for some time.
How would you say things are different from when you came out?
When I was first coming out, I was most worried about things like safety. Getting married or running for public office weren’t even possibilities in my mind.
If I was growing up today, I think I’d have higher expectations about what opportunities were available because there are so many great role models and because of the many successes the LGBTQ movement has seen.
What has it been like for you being an openly gay mayor?
Every elected official brings different things to the table. Being gay gives me a perspective on what it is like to be an “outsider” that I hope helps me empathize with other people who are also in that “outsider” position in one way or the other. While ninety-nine percent of what we do on the city council is not LGBTQ-specific, it affects everyone the same. I think that the unique perspective I have as a gay man can provide valuable insights.
I will say that as a gay elected official, I feel a responsibility to be more vocal about LGBTQ issues and equity in general. Since I was elected, our city was able to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance — the second of its kind in Georgia. It was the first to be passed in the state since Atlanta passed their own in the early 2000s. We were able to kick off a wave of other cities and counties passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances. I hope that this will influence the state to do something, especially in a state where Republicans have controlled the legislature for so long and used LGBTQ issues as a wedge to get their base on board. Working at the local level is the way to start changing the mindset of people and build awareness.
Once again, we are seeing efforts to limit the rights of our community through legalized discrimination, especially for our trans brothers and sisters. What is the coalition doing collectively in response?
During the Trump administration, Mayors Against LGBTQ Discrimination filed suits against executive orders negatively impacting the trans community, and I participated in calls with cabinet agencies. Even when the chance of changing the policy is low, the point was to make sure that the administration heard voices representing cities that were speaking out in favor of equality.
I am also a member of the National League of Cities’ LGBTQ affinity group. One of the things we were able to do recently was to get the League to adopt a position of supporting the Equality Act in Congress.
What is your response to those politicians that are trying to restrict our rights?
It is frustrating that anti-LGBTQ scapegoating is still happening in 2021! We seem to move forward two or three steps and then take one or two steps back every few years. I am hopeful that the world is changing, but I don’t take anything for granted.
When you were elected mayor of Doraville you also became a member of the coalition of Mayors Against LGBTQ Discrimination. As a member of the LGBTQ community yourself, what unique perspectives do you bring to the non-LGBTQ members?
I have experienced different forms of antigay discrimination over the years. That gives me more perspective on how discrimination can impact people and hopefully makes me a little more thoughtful in some of the processes I go through in shaping legislation.
It is vital for groups like Mayors Against LGBTQ Discrimination to exist and for that group to include straight allies as well as members of our community. I took office in 2020, but before that, I convinced our previous mayor to join the group. Her participation sent a message that the group is broader than gay people and focused on overall civil and human rights. I appreciate that she joined the group and think it sent an important message.
At a local level, what are your specific priorities as it relates to our community and your constituents?
We have seven elected officials in Doraville, three of whom are LGBTQ. It is a suburban community, and we do have a significant LGBTQ population. In Doraville, we have already passed a nondiscrimination ordinance, but I feel it is essential is that we highlight the accomplishments of LGBTQ people and other marginalized individuals. We issued a proclamation for LGBTQ Pride this year and last. In May, we issued a proclamation to recognize Harvey Milk Day. I will be leading a group of residents from the LGBTQ community and allies at Atlanta Pride. I think we must be visible and continue to recognize the contributions of everyone.
What should members of our community be doing in response to the actions of politicians at the local, state, and federal levels?
I have been a firm believer that it is important to be engaged in your local politics. You can usually have more impact on what is going on in your city, county, and state than you can have at the federal level. All of those local things also impact the federal government in ways that you don’t see.
To learn more about the Mayors Against LGBTQ Discrimination, visit their website at MayorsAgainstLGBTDiscrimination.org. To learn more about Mayor Joseph Geierman, visit the City of Doraville website at DoravilleGA.us/Departments/Mayor_and_Council/index.php.