Joan Garner, first openly gay Fulton County Commissioner, dies after cancer battle

Fulton County Commission Vice Chair Joan Garner has died after a battle with breast cancer. Garner was the first openly gay Fulton County Commissioner, representing District 4, which includes Midtown and neighborhoods west of downtown Atlanta to Fulton Industrial Boulevard. Her wife was Fulton County State Court Judge Jane Morrison.

Garner, whose fellow commissioners honored her last week, talked with Georgia Voice about her cancer battle in July 2015, saying that the diagnosis gave her a unique lens through which to address an issue important to her during her 2010 campaign and throughout her tenure on the county commission — health care.

“It’s funny. I look at this like, I deemed myself the ‘health commissioner’ right? So I’m getting firsthand experience on what it’s like navigating through the medical system,” she said. “I am definitely aware of how people are treated and I hope through this experience it will also help my role moving forward as a commissioner who is focusing on the health and well-being of all citizens.”

Garner also revealed that she went straight from treatment to the June 26, 2015 rally at the Center for Civil and Human Rights to celebrate that morning’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down same-sex marriage bans nationwide.

“I’m supposed to limit how much I can be out in public because of the nature of treatment,” she said. “But this was just something that I could not pass up. Besides, my partner was marrying people.”

Garner and Morrison clasped hands as they stood onstage at the rally, noting that since they married in Massachusetts five years earlier, “Today in the great state of Georgia we are recognized as wife and wife.”

‘This is a terrible loss’

Tributes began to pour in Tuesday afternoon as news of her passing spread.

From Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed:

Atlanta City Councilmember Kwanza Hall said he knew Garner since the late 1990s and got to know her better when he and his wife moved to Garner and Morrison’s neighborhood in the Old Fourth Ward.

“It’s been really a great time knowing Joan and having her as a political ally and neighbor and friend. It’s surely been a blessing, but it’s heartbreaking to see how she had to deal with cancer and the bad things that come with it,” Hall told Georgia Voice. “Our prayers are for sure with Jane, her partner and everyone who knew her. I know my wife and the team and her office are taking a moment to pause and kind of catch themselves up on this new reality. She’ll surely be missed. It comes with life and just good to have known her for so long and have had her as a wonderful shining light in the Old Fourth Ward, King district and in our city.”

Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, the first openly LGBT elected official in Georgia history, told Georgia Voice, “Commissioner Garner was a friend and my heart is broken today. She exemplified all that was good about a public servant – honest, kind, hardworking, truly representative of the greater good. We are all better people from knowing her and benefiting from her contributions to our community. May she rest in peace and we all surround and support her wife, Jane, though this incredibly sad time.”

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves issued a statement to the AJC, saying he and other commissioners were “heartbroken” by her death on Tuesday.

“We will miss her thoughtful service, her passion for equity, and, especially, her smile and her warmth,” he said.

Former state Rep. Rashad Taylor, the first openly gay man to serve in the Georgia Legislature, called Garner “a great woman with a warm heart and amazing spirit.”

State Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) reacted on Twitter:

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham issued the following statement:

On behalf of the entire board and staff of Georgia Equality, I want to express our sadness over today’s news of Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner’s passing. Joan was a close friend to many of us, and someone we turned to regularly for help. She was always willing to lend a hand and do whatever she could to better the lives of her constituents, her friends, and her family. We extend our sympathies to all who mourn her loss and send our love to her wife, Judge Jane Morrison.

In both her personal and professional lives, Joan was a tireless advocate for LGBT Georgians, people living with HIV and others. The impact she had on our communities is immeasurable and will continue to be felt for years to come. Our community has lost a true hero today, but she will not soon be forgotten.

Commissioner Garner fought breast cancer for years, and never let it keep her from fighting for her community. Many of us will remember her tenacious appearance at the rally for marriage equality after the US Supreme Court had declared same-sex marriage constitutional. In treatment for cancer, she wore a scarf on her head, but it didn’t affect her way of making everyone in the crowd feel loved and embraced. Her treatment may have taken her hair, but it certainly hadn’t broken her spirit.

I first met Joan during the fight to win domestic partner benefits for City of Atlanta employees. Over the next 25 years, I turned to her often as a colleague, mentor and friend. Through her nonprofit work, she pushed foundations in Georgia and around the country to fund progressive organizing and LGBT services throughout the South. She spirit and commitment to the betterment of multiple communities is a small part of the legacy she leaves us.

We will keep Joan in our hearts and minds, and her legacy will be our continued efforts on behalf of the communities she fought so hard for.

Garner inspired by civil rights movement

Garner, a Washington, DC native, moved to Atlanta in 1978. She was the co-founder in 1993 of Southerners On New Ground, a grassroots organization that works at the intersections of race, class, sexuality and gender. She had also served on the board of LGBT legal group Lambda Legal.

Garner (l) taking the oath of office in 2011, with her wife Jane Morrison behind her. (File photo)

Upon taking office in 2011, she thanked everyone who supported her campaign and especially thanked Morrison, “My biggest and greatest supporter,” which was greeted by applause.

“Today is no ordinary day,” she said. “This is more than an average run of the mill inauguration ceremony. This inauguration ceremony for me is a realization of a lifelong quest for inclusion.”

Garner recounted watching Martin Luther King Jr. as a small girl growing up in Washington, D.C., as he led the Poor People’s March, and the awe she held for his “bold audacity to champion unpopular but important causes.”

“Even then I was painfully aware of a glaring disconnect between many of our people and their government,” she said.

When King was assassinated, Garner said she remembered angry, grieving people taking to the streets in protest.

“From that day forward I took up the mantle of social justice as my own,” she said. “Those days shaped me, they inspired me to pursue a life of social justice. It is what drives me and my decisions every day. My career choice in nonprofit philanthropy, my activist work in the civil rights movement, the movements of women’s equality and for gay rights.”

Dallas Duncan contributed to this story.