Georgia elected officials come out

“We have just lived our lives the way any other person would. Neighbors come out and say you are just like any other married couple — you have a dog, a daughter. And I say, ‘Yeah, how about that?’”

Tart, who is finishing up his first term as a city council member in the socially conservative and affluent city of Milton, said he’s not sure he will run again. The election is six months away and he said he’s busy doing his job right now. Another person, Lance Large, has already put his hat in the ring to run for Tart’s District 6 seat.

As an openly gay elected official serving in Georgia, Tart is part of an elite club that includes State Reps. Karla Drenner and Simone Bell, Decatur City Commisssioner Kecia Cunningham, Doraville Council member Brian Bates, Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan, East Point City Council member Lance Rhodes, Marietta City Council member Johnny Sinclair, Pine Lake Mayor Pro-Tem Kathie deNobriga, Pine Lake City Council member Melanie Hammett, and, most recently after being “forced” out of the closet, State Rep. Rashad Taylor.

But most people outside of Milton did not know of Tart or that he was gay until recent stories were published online at Project Q Atlanta, a gay media outlet, and The Beacon, a North Fulton media outlet. The stories characterized Tart as playing “hard to get” in letting the public know he is gay.

That is not true, Tart countered.

“Although I didn’t approach the gay media before, I also don’t want to be mischaracterized,” he said. “The way I was characterized [in those stories] was almost like I was closeted. I wasn’t in the closet. I was open about my sexuality and who I love throughout the campaign. David was right there with me the whole time. I wouldn’t consider that in the closet in any way or under the radar.”

Tart playing ‘hard to get’?

On the City of Milton website, Tart’s biography clearly states, “Tart, his partner David, and his daughter Madison … have been residents of the Northwest Fulton area since 2005.”

Tart says that has been part of his biography since the beginning of his term. Plus, he said, his partner campaigned with him, was introduced as his partner at community forums and the two are active together as a couple in their neighborhood.

Matt Hennie, founder of Project Q Atlanta, a gay online media outlet, said he began reaching out to Tart for an interview at the end of March. Two scheduled phone interviews were planned but never took place. Hennie also offered to conduct an email interview with Tart, but said he got no response.

“I find it interesting that being in office this whole time he never reached out to any LGBT organizations and that someone like Jeff Graham [executive director of Georgia Equality], who has been involved in politics for years, didn’t even know who he was,” Hennie said.

“That’s not to say he was closeted as evidenced by his bio and his supporters that contacted us after our story ran. But he certainly didn’t avail himself to LGBT political organizations and financial support that have helped other LGBT candidates. Our post never said he was closeted. He was just difficult to get in touch with,” Hennie added.

Tart acknowledged Project Q Atlanta reached out to him beginning at the end of March, but said he was too busy to follow through with scheduled interviews. He said he never reached out to the LGBT media because that’s not his style.

“It’s just not something I would do. If I was running for office in Midtown, maybe,” Tart said. “Let’s face it, there isn’t likely a big gay readership here or places to get those kinds of magazines. The only reason I would go to the gay media would be to say, ‘Hey, look at me.’”

As for not reaching out to groups such as Georgia Equality or the national Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund for endorsements, Tart said he didn’t ask any organizations for endorsements while running his campaign and only asked individuals. But, he said, he also thought organizations like those wanted people who were seeking serious social change for gay rights, while he wanted only to ensure Milton was a safe, efficient city serving its residents.

“I ran a very grassroots campaign. I didn’t ask for endorsement from any one. Because of my political naïveté at the time — I just thought those groups wanted to endorse people who have more stances on social issues. I’m just about a better Milton,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem living as a gay man in Milton.”

Tart said he is proud of who he is as a gay man but didn’t want his sexual orientation to be at the forefront of his campaign.

“I wanted people to know that I was a man running for council and happened to be gay, and proud to be gay … I knew from the onset that I did not want to hide who I was. I’m proud of who I am. But I did not want sexuality to be at the forefront of the job,” he said.

Making progress his own way

Tart works for the federal government as a Regional Retail Food Specialist and National Team Leader for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He said he has been identified as gay in the conservative North Fulton newspaper The Beacon, which recently folded and is currently only online, prior to its recent story about him.

While Tart didn’t hold a press conference to announce he is gay or reach out to LGBT organizations, he said living his life as an openly gay man and elected official in the suburbs is his way of being part of the movement for equality.

“There are many different ways to let people know who are afraid or apprehensive of gay people and many ways to show we are contributing members of society,” he said.

“I think it’s easy for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — for us to move into more welcoming, accepting areas of the inner city. I think, though, that if we are going to make progress we not only do what is comfortable but also what’s uncomfortable, like I did,” Tart said.

State Rep. Rashad Taylor comes out

In sharp contrast to Tart’s story, Georgia State Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta) came out May 27 as a gay man at a press conference after the ex-boyfriend of his current partner sent out emails to legislators alleging he is gay and also accusing him of misusing his office.

“I am a gay man,” Taylor said at the press conference held at Georgia Equality’s office at the Phillip Rush Center.

Taylor becomes the first openly gay male serving in the Georgia legislature and the third openly gay state lawmaker. State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) and State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) are also gay and were out when they ran for office.

According to the national Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay officials, Taylor is only the sixth black openly LGBT person to serve in a state legislature. Bell was the first black lesbian elected to a state legislature in 2009.

A man who is the ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s partner sent an email to state legislators outing him and alleging Taylor misused his office by promising men jobs in exchange for sex. Taylor denied those allegations, but did say the truth is he is gay.

“For some it may take two days, for some it take two years or 20 years [to come out],” he said. “I serve in public office and try to retain some semblance of a private life. This is a journey I’ve been on,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to expedite anyone else’s journey. It ought to be a personal decision.”

Taylor admitted that if the allegations against him had not been made he would not have come out. But it was time to tell the truth, Taylor added.

“I felt like honestly this was it unless I spoke the truth,” Taylor said, saying he didn’t want someone to feel like they had something “over his head.”

He said before May 27, he could “count on one hand” the people who knew he was gay. Taylor also said that he came out to his mother and family in the 24 hours leading up to the press conference. He thanked his mother for his support and she hugged him warmly after he spoke to the media.

“I feel really good. My heart is at ease,” he said about coming out publicly. “Tonight’s sleep will probably be the best sleep I’ve had in 12 or 13 years.”

Taylor did not respond to interview requests from the GA Voice after the press conference.

‘Glad he doesn’t have that burden to bear’

Taylor acknowledged that in the African-American culture, being gay is a tough subject to discuss, which played a role in his not coming out publicly before.

When asked about his political future, Taylor said, “I am the same Rashad Taylor that was on the ballot in 2008 and 2010. My positions won’t change.”

Taylor was flanked by his mother and other family members as well as State Rep. Alisha Morgan; State Sen. Vincent Fort; Reese McCranie, the openly gay spokesperson for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; Larry Pellegrini, the openly gay executive director of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit; and Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham.

Sen. Fort said in an interview this week that he talked with Taylor the day before the press conference and assured him of his support.

“I’ve been around a long time and it takes a lot to surprise me,” Fort said when asked about learning Taylor was gay.

“It was important to me that he and his family would be all right,” Fort said. “After that everything else is secondary.”

Fort said Taylor is not only a political colleague, but also a friend. While the circumstances causing Taylor to come out were unfortunate, Fort said he believes Taylor’s constituents will ultimately judge him on how he serves as a representative and not on this moment in his life.

“This is more about his personal journey — he is the one to tell his story and not anyone else,” Fort said. “My assessment is he’s going to be judged on the basis of his representation and not his sexuality. I really believe that.”

Fort said he could appreciate the difficulty of Taylor’s situation.

“My life has been about not only tolerance but acceptance,” Fort said. “I’m really looking forward to working with Rashad. And I’m glad he doesn’t have that burden to bear anymore.”

Top photo: State Rep. Rashad Taylor (right) held a press conference May 27 to announce he is gay after his boyfriend’s ex-partner sent out emails to legislators outing him. Milton City Council member Alan Tart (left) has been out since he was elected in 2007 but has never reached out to gay groups or the gay media before now.
(Taylor photo by Dyana Bagby, Tart via Facebook)