Georgia lesbian lawmaker brings power to the people from within the Gold Dome

She is only the second openly gay legislator elected to the Georgia General Assembly — State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) was the first in 2000. Bell is also the first openly lesbian African-American elected to a state legislative office in the country.

Being the first black lesbian state lawmaker is an honor, Bell said, but not one she sought out.

“I’m very honored again that my life is being used beyond me. I didn’t set out to do that, but for whatever reason I’m that person,” she said.

Since the state legislature convened in January, Bell has been learning the system, figuring out personalities, procedures and policies to ensure she is an effective lawmaker. One lesson she learned early was that activism comes in many forms.

“I think one thing that’s become painfully clear to me is that if you’re outside the Capitol rallying, no one knows you’re out there because inside those walls it’s a whole different world going on and you’re really secluded from what’s happening outside. You really have to make an effort to stay connected to people outside fighting for their rights,” she said.

“And in some ways that’s a little sad. Because I’ve been on the outside rallying, fighting for our lives, and now I know often that no one is listening.”

While disappointing to learn, Bell said the lesson is also encouraging.

“I know I made the right decision [to run for office]. I know the urging I had to be at the table is the right thing to do. I have an understanding of how important it is to agitate from the outside, but then also to be able to make adjustments needed to be a part of conversations that happen on the inside,” she explained.

‘My activist side roared’

Being on the inside at the General Assembly brought surprises from Day One. Bell said she was surprised to find out that each day begins with a sermon from a pastor invited by a legislator, followed by members being required to stand so the pastor can pray over them. Then everyone recites the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I’m like, preacher of the day? What’s that mean? Is this not strange to anyone else? What about the separation of church and state?” she said.

During the first few days of the session, a pastor invited by House Majority Leader Rep. Jerry Keen (R-St. Simon) came in and preached what Bell described as “vitriolic, hateful speech,“ including anti-gay and anti-abortion commentary.

“Ultimately, the way I heard it, he said if you vote anything Democratic, you’re going to hell. If you in any way think for yourself, you’re going to hell,” she said.
Bell refused to stand up when he prayed over the chamber.

“My activist side roared inside me and I decided to practice non-violence social resistance. I was not going to dignify the words that came out of his mouth,” she said.
Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), who has dealt with anti-gay rhetoric under the Gold Dome for five terms, said she was glad Bell was there that day, as well as every day of the session.

“It was important to me for someone else with the same perspective to sit through what I’ve had to sit through for a decade,” Drenner said.

“It’s nice to have a caucus other than straight men,” she added.

Having two sets of eyes within the General Assembly watching bills that may directly impact the LGBT community is also key, Drenner said.

“So we’re not relying on someone in the hallway and have something slip by that could damage our community,” Drenner said. “She’s learning, but at least she’s there. She’s picking things up and can help monitor the process. It’s good to have someone there to share this with.”

Picking her battles

Bell serves on the Children & Youth Committee, the State Planning & Community Affairs Committee and the Human Relations Committee. Her first piece of legislation passed was a resolution honoring the late Allen Thornell.

Thornell, who was gay and ran for the District 58 seat in 2006 but lost, was instrumental in encouraging Bell to run for elected office. She tells the story of Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham and Thornell calling her, asking her if she had ever thought of running for public office.

What they didn’t know was that Bell had been wanting to “step up her game” and in the past few years had been talking with her mentors, including longtime activists Mary Anne Adams and Joan Garner, about what that next step would be.

“There are constant memories of Allen on the floor. His presence is still very much felt at the Capitol,” Bell said. “Jeff [Graham] and I were talking and I knew I wanted to do something. I started talking to colleagues and I started hearing about a resolution.”

The resolution honors Thornell’s HIV activism, his work with Georgia Equality, the Service Employees International Union and neighborhood activism.

“For whatever reason, I’ve been given this opportunity to serve. And I can’t think of that without thinking of Allen,” she said.

The resolution, however, does not mention Thornell was gay. Bell said she made the decision as part of the give-and-take in politics — especially in the midst of the resignation of House Speaker Glenn Richardson and her uncertainty as to how senior House members might react to the word “gay.”

“It was one of those hard decisions,” Bell said. “I’m very pleased with the resolution, his family is pleased with it and so are his friends. For me, this was an issue of picking battles. And I think Allen is pleased.”

Graham, who was a good friend of Thornell’s, said Bell’s election to the House of Representatives helps cement Thornell’s legacy in Georgia politics and activism.
“I look forward to her really making a name for herself,” Graham said.

Running again

Bell credits her parter of 21 years, Val Acree, with the support she’s needed to take her career to another level.

“Val is my world. People say to me you’re such a warrior woman. What they don’t know is I couldn’t do any of this without Val. She’s my biggest cheerleader. She believes in me when I don’t believe in myself,” she said. “Without Val, there could never have been a campaign, a state rep, or anything … she’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

But Bell deserves her own credit for running her campaign with true grassroots drive — with volunteers from all backgrounds, including transgender people, straight allies, gay and lesbian friends, and supporters from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds that make up her progressive district.

She represents diverse Atlanta neighborhoods including East Atlanta, Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, Edgewood, Grant Park and Kirkwood, among others. And because she won office in a special election to replace Rep. Robin Shipp, who resigned with one year left on her two-year term, Bell has to run again this year, when all seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs. The primary is in July with the general election in November.

In the meantime, Bell said her goal is to be effective in the Gold Dome and inspire others to become involved in the process.

“I think there is a place for agitators inside and out. The only way to work in any movement — LGBT, poverty, death penalty — the only way we are really going to have our voices heard is if we are part of either creating those laws or stopping bad laws from happening,” she said. “Which means someone has to be inside.”

First day in legislature ‘like first day in kindergarten’

Simone Bell’s first day as the state representative for District 58 started out with a conundrum many Atlanta motorists face — she couldn’t find parking.  When she drove up to her reserved space at the Capitol it was taken by someone else.

So she frantically drove to Atlanta Underground to park, but had no cash. The attendant was not sympathetic to her story.

“I was like, dude, you’ve got to let me park. But they only take cash,” she recalled. So she drove around for 30 minutes, found a gas station with an ATM, withdrew some money and finally parked.

When Bell got to the Gold Dome to get into the chamber before the 10 a.m. start, she was not allowed in because she didn’t have her official state representative badge.

Bell was elected to the state House during a special election in November to replace Robbin Shipp after Shipp resigned due to a conflict of interest with her position as a Fulton County prosecutor.

Bell garnered the most votes in the Nov. 3 election but faced attorney Asha Jackson in a December runoff, which she won handily by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin. She will hold the seat for the last year of a two-year term and is the second openly gay person, after state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), to be elected to Georgia state office. Both face reelection in July.

Again, Bell found no sympathy when she told the woman guarding the chamber entrance she is the new state representative — no badge, no entry. Bell frantically searched for where to get her badge, found the place, got the coveted ID, and made it back to the chamber. However, it was after 10 a.m. and the doors were locked. They are locked every day at 10 a.m.

Bell convinced officials to unlock the doors to let her in where the chamber was packed with legislators milling around, talking, waiting for the session to begin.

She found a friendly face in state Rep. Pat Gardner, who helped her get checked in with the clerk. But when Bell went to find her seat where she thought it was, it wasn’t there. After asking more questions, she discovered it’s been moved across the room and to the back.

“I finally sit down and am on the verge of tears. What have I done? I feel like the new kid who can’t find her way. I spend the whole day texting my partner, my campaign manager, asking, ‘What am I doing here?’” she said.

With their encouragement, she went back the second day and hasn’t looked back since. She also now has her parking spot secured.

“My first day was like the first day of kindergarten. I felt like the new kid with too big galoshes and a too big lunch box that flew open and my sandwich came out,” Bell said with a laugh.

The weeks since then, though, have gone much smoother. Bell knows her way around the capitol, flashes her badge with ease, is attending committee meetings and hearings as well as continuing to stay in touch with the neighborhoods she represents by attending various functions, meetings and get-togethers.

She’s also learning to incorporate another layer — that of a serious state lawmaker — into her multifaceted personality.

As a member of the Sweet Vibrations women’s motorcycle club, which was very heavily involved in supporting her during her campaign, Bell is used to wearing clothes other than the pants suits and skirts she wears at work under the Gold Dome.

She confessed she hasn’t ridden her motorcycle since before the campaign began, but said she is looking forward to the warmer weather when she can ride her 1971 classic BSA electric blue bike, a gift from her Douglasville uncle.

“Sometimes I wish I was in my jeans and combat boots and a bandanna tied around my head so I feel the power of all my ancestors rising up,” she said. “But now I raise my hand to ask a question. I have to be tamer.”

‘Learning the multiplicities’

Bell jokes that to most people in the legislature, she’s just the “woman with the funny hair.” Learning to adjust to different environments is something she takes seriously and honestly.

“I’ve been many places where I’m the only open lesbian person, or the only woman, or the only black person. It’s about learning how to live in those multiplicities; live in them and balance them out. Clearly many times [at the Capitol] I just want to stand up and shout, ‘Power to the people!’” she said.

Bell knows as a new state representative, she has a lot to learn.

“My strategy is to keep my head down, figure out how the process works, how to get legislation through. It’s not cut and dry. It’s not black and white. It’s not gay. It’s a rainbow,” she said with a laugh. “But not in the queer sense.

“I think the work I’ve done up to this point, speaking in academic settings, traveling through the South and working in many areas and on many issues, I’ve learned how to nuance the truth where it remains the truth, where an activist can hear it, but also an everyday person trying to make it through the day can hear it as well. And I hope people in power hear it too.”

The best piece of advice and one she hears quite frequently from veterans of the legislature is a simple: Don’t speak from the well your first year. That was former Speaker Tom Murphy’s advice to all newcomers and one that has become a mantra, Bell said.

To become effective, it’s crucial to study, learn and observe in that first year, Bell said.

“The first half of the term I’ll get in, learn the process, learn people and their different personalities, who’s moderate, who is easy to work with across the aisle and in caucus,” she said.

She’s also got to learn the other issues that matter to other people in their districts to make partnerships.

“It would be a mistake to try to change the world right away,” she said. “Every moment of every day is new.”

‘Why I’m here’

Bell is completely comfortable with the role of state representative because she knows it was the right decision for her to make for her life. But for others, there are different ways to make a difference — including from the outside.

One of the most powerful days for Bell at the Capitol was Feb. 11 — Poor People’s Day, an annual event where activists rally outside, hoping to be heard from those on the inside. This year, a group of activists also came inside the building and sat in a conference to give testimony to interested lawmakers.

Bell remembers being outside the Capitol numerous times on Poor People’s Day rallying and chanting; this year she got to see it from the inside.

When she went to the conference room where the activists, Bell said she was seeing the people she has worked alongside for so many years.

“I see my people,” she said. “People I’ve rallied with over the years. And as I’m listening to their testimonies, I know that’s my heart. This was one moment where I did shout, ‘Power to the people!’”

There was one young black woman who was trying to speak between tears, Bell remembered. She told those there that she had made mistakes in the past and how hard it is to make it in today’s tough economic climate, but that she really wanted to get a job and do better.

“That’s my shit man,” Bell said of how this woman touched her. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Bell said she told the woman this was her first Poor People’s Day, but her days of advocating for herself and others was not over.

“If there is no other reason that is why I’m in the legislature, this was it. It just felt like this is why I am here.”

Photo: State Rep. Simone Bell is the second openly gay person elected to the Georgia General Assembly and the first openly lesbian African-American in the country elected to a state legislature. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)