State Sen. Josh McKoon (File photo)

Confronting Georgia’s next LGBT civil rights battle and more

The year began with religious freedom controversies, thanks to Atlanta’s former fire chief and a Republican senator, but by the beginning of summer, a watershed moment in the fight for marriage equality had occurred. During the course of the year there were setbacks, devastating losses and incredible triumphs. We take a look back at the stories that had us all talking, tweeting and Facebooking in 2015.

Former fire chief files complaint, federal lawsuit against city

Former Atlanta Fire Chief and conservative martyr Kelvin Cochran filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the city of Atlanta, the first step in filing a federal lawsuit, after his job was terminated by Mayor Kasim Reed upon discovering that Cochran self-published a book titled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” in which he compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, as well as making anti-Semitic and misogynistic remarks.

Attorneys from faith-based organization Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit against Reed and the city in February on Cochran’s behalf, saying Cochran was terminated due to his religious beliefs. A federal judge has decided that the case will proceed to trial.

‘Religious freedom’ bill introduced, dies in House Judiciary Committee

It was the most contentious piece of legislation affecting the LGBT community to be addressed by Georgia lawmakers in 2015. SB 129, the so-called “religious freedom bill,” introduced in February by Sen. Josh McKoon (R- Columbus), made national headlines and spurred reaction from conservative supporters, unlikely allies, and the local business community and progressive city officials.

During the four-month political discourse surrounding SB 129, progressive and LGBT rights groups rallied in strong opposition and pressured major corporations to speak out publicly against the bill. Georgia Voice also broke a story revealing McKoon’s ties to a Columbus-based anti-LGBT ministry.

Republican Mike Jacobs of Brookhaven added anti-discrimination language to SB 129 on March 26 and rather than voting, supporters of the bill tabled it, effectively killing the bill until the start of the 2016 legislative session, when it is expected to be reintroduced.

Transgender inmate Ashley Diamond

The year for Ashley Diamond started out as a series of dehumanizing events as an inmate in the Georgia Department of Corrections system. After being denied hormone therapy and subjected to verbal and sexual assaults as a transgender woman housed in an all-male prison, she filed a federal lawsuit with the help of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.

After three years of incarceration, Diamond was granted early release in August.

Violet Chachki wins RuPaul’s Drag Race 

Social media was set ablaze in June when Atlanta drag queen Violet Chachki was crowned America’s next drag superstar on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Chachki took home the crown and a $100,000 check on season 7 of the hit LOGO show, whose host also has Atlanta roots.

Blake’s on the Park dress code controversy

A dress code posted in the front window of popular Atlanta gay bar, Blake’s on the Park became a lightning rod of controversy and racial division after it was shared numerous times on social media. Critics voiced their disapproval of the sign, which they believed targeted African-American gay men in an attempt to dissuade people of color from entering.

Blake’s management insisted the dress code was enacted to ensure the safety of all patrons and to curb a pattern of violence and theft then happening in Midtown. The sign was removed shortly after the online backlash began.

Atlanta’s Rainbow Crosswalks

The intersection of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue became even gayer than before with the installation of rainbow crosswalks in time for Atlanta Pride in October. City officials approved the $40,000 public art project of Robert Sepulveda Jr., which included donations from the community to raise the necessary funds to bring the project to fruition.

It was no surprise that anger erupted after it was announced that the crosswalks would be temporary instead of a permanent fixture as originally promised. Citing “safety concerns,” the crosswalks were granted a temporary permit from Oct. 3–16 and were removed shortly thereafter.

Chris Brown bails on Atlanta Black Gay Pride performance

R&B singer Chris Brown continued to live down to his reputation as an irresponsible and homophobic entertainer when he bailed on a scheduled performance for the women of Traxx Girls during Atlanta Black Gay Pride. Georgia Voice broke the viral story that was picked up by dozens of major media outlets after Brown failed to show up at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot nightclub for an estimated 4,000 women due to a small presence of gay men.

Brown took to Twitter to deny ever being booked for the event, but his team soon backed away from the denial, reportedly returning the deposit after threats of a lawsuit by Traxx Girls founder Melissa Scott.

Beloved Atlanta drag queen Lateasha Shuntel dies

The sudden passing of popular drag performer Lateasha Shuntel stunned members of the Atlanta LGBT and drag community. Shuntel was mainstay at Blake’s on The Park and a distributor for David Atlanta. Shuntel’s colleague, Shavonna Brooks, broke the news of her passing on Facebook.

Shuntel’s David Atlanta colleagues created a GoFundMe account to cover funeral expenses. It quickly exceeded the initial goal. A moving tribute was also held in Shuntel’s memory at Blake’s on the Park.

Former YouthPride director Terence McPhaul dies

Almost a month passed before word of Terence McPhaul’s death at 52 made its way back to Atlanta. The controversial former executive director of YouthPride passed away on Nov. 16 in Indianapolis, Indiana and was laid to rest on Nov. 25.

McPhaul joined YouthPride as co-executive director in 2009 before becoming the sole executive director in January 2010. A series of controversial episodes followed and were documented in Georgia Voice and other local gay media outlets.

Atlanta at center of HIV/AIDS news

From the unveiling of the Fulton County Task Force strategy to end AIDS to several major conferences addressing the increase of new HIV infections in gay and bisexual men of color, Atlanta was at the center of a flurry of HIV/AIDS news, initiatives and events at the close of the year.

More than 3,000 HIV experts descended on Atlanta in early December for the 2015 National HIV Prevention Conference (NHPC). A counter-conference of HIV/AIDS groups and activists was also held to demand attention to HIV criminalization and the expansion of Medicaid, among other initiatives.