As Georgia’s three openly lesbian lawmakers return to work under the iconic Gold Dome as the 2013 legislative session convenes today, they face the daunting task of trying to find a voice in a predominantly Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Republicans will enter the 2013 legislative session with a near-constitutional majority after a particularly good election year for conservative lawmakers at the local level. But despite the national tide turning toward LGBT equality, Georgia’s gay lawmakers and activists have an uphill battle to continue the advance in an unfriendly legislative atmosphere.
Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham said work will continue, despite the Republican majority. Georgia, after all, is not new to conservative politics.
“Certainly, working in a Republican-dominated legislature is a challenge,” Graham told GA Voice. “It’s a challenge that we’ve been working in for almost a decade.”
Building relationships with new lawmakers will be one of the biggest challenges of 2013.
“For the last four years, we’ve seen a softening of some of the hard attitudes toward the LGBT community,” Graham said. “We’ve been able to pass bills. HIV prevention, anti-bullying, we’ve been able to consistently fight back against anti-gay and anti-transgender legislation that different lawmakers have expressed interest in trying to introduce.”
Progress, Graham said, has been slow but noticeable.
“The first challenge is working within a bipartisan environment,” Graham said of the new session. “That is perhaps our biggest challenge in Georgia. Any issue that is seen as needing bipartisan support is not as apt at getting focus or attention. That covers a wide variety of issues, not just LGBT issues.”
Georgia Equality will again utilize the lobbying services of Cathy Woolard, the openly gay former Atlanta City Council president who was recently named interim director of AID Atlanta. Graham is a registered lobbyist for Georgia Equality.
Priorities in the new year
For Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), Georgia’s first openly gay state lawmaker and one of three at the Gold Dome this year, the top priority in 2013 will be introducing and passing an updated version of the Fair Employment Practices Act to ban job bias against LGBT state employees.
A similar bill, HB 630, was proposed last year but found itself stalled in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill was sponsored by Drenner and co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta) and Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) among others. More than 50 of the bills cosponsors will be returning to work under the Gold Dome in 2013 and Drenner believes it can pass.
The current law prohibits on-the-job discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, handicap, or age for the state’s workers. Drenner and others in the General Assembly would like to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected statuses.
“The last bill was bipartisan, overwhelmingly Democratic, but there were a fair amount of Republicans who supported it as well,” Drenner told GA Voice. “I believe it will be that way this time. There will be some Republicans that will be willing to sign onto it, as well.”
Bullying and hate crimes
Along with Drenner, Georgia’s openly gay state legislators also include state Reps. Simone Bell and Keisha Waites, both Atlanta-area Democrats.
Waites has prefiled two pieces of legislation with LGBT impact among her 18 prefiled bills.
The first, HB12, would change how Georgia punishes those convicted of committing a “bias crime” or “hate crime” by instituting harsher penalties. Both gender identity and sexual orientation are included under the bill.
“The national trend reflects that our Republican friends must embrace new policies and ideals that are inclusive,” Waites said. “However, I am also learning to champion the small victories. If pre-filing this legislation keeps the conversation on the table to build support then I am happy to be a part of that effort. History has taught us that our silence has never protected!”
Waites has also prefiled HB 16, a bill that would require primary and secondary education institutions to create annual reports of incidents of bullying.
“The recent headlines reflect that bullying has long been a quiet matter swept under the rug by administrators,” Waites said. “One of the best ways to decrease the incidents of bullying is to take preventative measures, recognizing it when it occurs, and reporting it when it happens. The issue however, is that a significant amount of schools do not have any anti-bullying programs.”
Graham said that he believes HB 16 has a good chance to move forward, while enacting “hate crime” or “bias crime” legislation is not likely to happen in the current climate.
“We certainly need that legislation,” Graham said, while noting, “There’s not been support from Republicans or the leadership, specifically leadership at the House level, to allow it to be heard or moved forward.”
Even if only symbolic, Graham said it was important that the legislation is introduced each session.
Other issues of LGBT importance could also come to a vote in 2013. Graham and Georgia Equality will press for an expansion of Medicaid that could help many of Georgia’s low-income LGBT people dealing with HIV/AIDS find treatment options.
Right now, Medicaid is generally limited to families with children or persons living with a disability. Such an expansion could help permanently eradicate Georgia’s waiting list for its AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP).
Drenner said despite national gains in approval and support, LGBT issues are still not widely accepted in Georgia’s legislature. And as more and more victories are achieved nationally, Republican lawmakers in Georgia could react by passing anti-gay legislation such as adoption or donor insemination bans.
Drenner said such bans would be a nightmare for Georgia’s LGBT constituents.
More than 50 new members of Georgia’s House will arrive under the Gold Dome in mid-January. Drenner said many of those lawmakers have unproven records on LGBT issues.
“The new people over in the House, I’m not sure what kind of backlash may occur as a result of the continual saga of same-sex marriage across the country. Whatever can happen, dream your worst thought, it could be a distinct possibility,” Drenner said.
“At this point, we’re not really sure where they stand on particular issues that could be harmful to the gay community,” she said. “We’ll watch and wait and see who does what.”
Both Drenner and Georgia Equality’s Graham said the best way to help facilitate meaningful change for Georgia’s LGBT constituents is to reach out to legislators, regardless of party, and begin to build relationships with local lawmakers.
“I would love for people to be more [politically] active,” Drenner said. “Come down. Lobby for a day. I can tell you myself and the other two openly gay representatives, we represent you. We are your voice. We are a reminder that having a seat at the table is important. Don’t abandon us.
“Don’t think just because we live in the South that things can’t be done. They can be but we need your help.”
Top photo: State Reps. Karla Drenner, Keisha Waites and Simone Bell will be the only openly gay state lawmakers when the new legislative session convenes this month. (File photos)