More than marriage: 5 issues our community must address now

Mary Anne Adams moved to Atlanta in 1988 and since that time she has seen Atlanta’s LGBT scene change dramatically.

“One of the biggest changes that I have seen is the degree and level of outness from LGBTQ communities, both internally and externally. Despite the overt homophobia and ever-looming threats of violence, it’s been exhilarating to see young folks on MARTA and at public events showing their affection for each other and just being themselves,” she said.

A proliferation of queer campus groups and openly gay politicians serving in the state legislature are also signs of Georgia’s progress, said Adams, who works in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University and as an organizer with ZAMI NOBLA (National Organization of Lesbians Aging).

Adams, like everyone else, anxiously awaits the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on same-sex marriage. But like many others, she also knows however SCOTUS rules on California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act — win, lose or draw — the nation’s fight for LGBT equality does not stop at the altar or in front of a judge.

The fight for equality for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people must continue in our schools, our hospitals, our senior centers, our youth centers, among affordable housing officials and employers.

“Unquestionably, everyone in this country should have human rights, equal rights and be able to marry the person of their choice; but do we spend millions of dollars and push legislation on this single issue to the exclusion of fighting for employment, housing, immigration, and medical access, to name a few? Can we strike a balance?” she asked.

It’s a good question.

GA Voice asked several local LGBT activists about five issues besides same-sex marriage that are important for our community: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; caring for our seniors and youth; HIV; dealing with the “isms” and “phobias” within our communities (such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia); and why it is important to align ourselves with other disenfranchised people.

So when we gather at 10th and Piedmont for Atlanta’s “Day of Decision” rally, let’s not forget that marriage equality is only one battle in the larger fight for the liberation of all LGBT people.


The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has lingered in Congress since 1994 and does not seem likely to pass soon. The proposed law would prohibit businesses with more than 15 employees from discriminating against workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The national grassroots organization GetEqual put the issue back on the radar this month when a member heckled Michelle Obama during her speech at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. The heckler shouted at Obama to tell the president to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, an order he refused to sign more than a year ago.

Also, several GetEQUAL members were arrested when they camped outside Speaker of the House John Boehner’s offices June 13 demanding he put ENDA to a vote.

President Barack Obama supports ENDA and mentioned it during the June 13 Pride reception at the White House. After the president’s comments, Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid (D-Nev.) signed on as an ENDA co-sponsor. There are now 51 co-sponsors of ENDA in the Senate, not quite enough to defeat a Republican-led filibuster, which needs 60 votes.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, said the gridlock in Washington, D.C., means it will likely be easier to pass a state law similar to the federal ENDA and help Georgia LGBT state employees sooner rather than later.

The Georgia legislation, named the Fair Employment Practices Act, has been introduced by openly gay state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) for the last two legislative sessions. Hearings on the bill were held during both sessions, but it never made it to the floor for a vote. If passed, it would be the first positive statewide legislation that addresses sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Frankly, we have a better chance passing the state bill than the federal ENDA bill,” Graham said. “ENDA is an important bill that ensures workplace fairness, but Congress has proven there is so much gridlock and it can’t come together on much of anything. I’m not hopeful we’ll have federal ENDA anytime soon, so that’s why it’s important to continue to push at the state level.

“This is our greatest chance of victory even in conservative Georgia,” he said.


Gay and bisexual men make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population, yet account for 63 percent of all new HIV infections with the largest group becoming infected being those ages 25 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Among African-American gay and bisexual men, the numbers are even more troubling. Of that 63 percent of new infections, black gay and bisexual men account for 36 percent, the CDC reports. From 2008 to 2010, new HIV infections among black gay and bisexual men ages 13 to 24 increased 22 percent.

At the end of 2010, of the estimated 872,990 people living with HIV, half are gay and bisexual men, according to the CDC.

Gay men face numerous prevention challenges, the CDC states. Receptive anal sex without using a condom is the sexual behavior where HIV is transmitted easiest. There is also homophobia, stigma and discrimination gay men may face, which can lead to poor decision making.

Not being tested and knowing one’s status, using drugs and alcohol, homelessness, poverty — all play a role in gay men contracting HIV at higher rates than anyone else in the nation.

While the South accounted for 46 percent of new HIV infections as of 2010, it only represents 37 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative.

HIV is striking down a new generation of gay and bisexual men, despite newer and better medications to help them live longer, healthier lives. The ongoing epidemic signifies a need for more education, more conversations, better funding from the states and federal government — and finding a way in which men who have sex with men are not stigmatized and discriminated against.

“Certainly HIV has to be something the LGBT community puts back in the forefront,” said Graham of Georgia Equality, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist. Georgia Equality has an initiative named the Georgia HIV Advocacy Network,

“We know here in Georgia the No. 1 group of people living with HIV and contracting HIV are gay and bisexual men. The data is not as solid, but transgender people are overwhelmingly disproportionally impacted,” he added.

“In Southern states, we have way too many people who die of AIDS,” Graham said.

Reasons include not identifying HIV-positive people early enough to get them into treatment and gaps in services.

Outside of metro Atlanta, there is spotty care for people with HIV. Some people wait weeks and even months for appointments. There are also waiting lists in Atlanta, Graham said.

“Because we are so overwhelmed, people are falling out of care — and this leads to new HIV infections and AIDS,” he said.

Caring for our seniors and youth

Linda Ellis serves as executive director of The Health Initiative, which provides health care resources to LGBT people as well as manages SAGE, an organization for LGBT seniors. There is now an entire generation of LGBT seniors facing challenges when it comes to accessing basic services and care, Ellis said.


Last year, a groundbreaking Gallup poll showed 3.4 percent of U.S. adults identify as LGBT, with younger people more readily identifying as being openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The poll showed many lesbians were raising children and that the myth of gay people being rich is largely untrue.

The Health Initiative now has a relationship with the Atlanta Regional Commission and its 25,000 services providers, giving the LGBT organization a direct line to these providers to educate them on the special needs of LGBT seniors as well as those needing basic health care.

“We’re past the point where we need to reinvent LGBT specific services and, in my opinion, create an LGBT health center. We just have to make sure the mainstream centers are ready for us. The same is true for seniors and youth services,” Ellis said.

Affordable housing is also a key concern for older LGBT people. Brad Ploeger is vice president of the board of Lutheran Towers on Juniper Street, one of the more popular low-income senior housing sites that receives federal Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) financing.

“There are great senior housing options for those who have money. But our average resident lives on $15,000 a year,” Ploeger said.

Anyone applying for HUD housing cannot be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity thanks to the Obama administration’s 2012 equal access housing rule. But the Towers, located in the gayborhood of Midtown, has been accepting LGBT residents for years.

That is why The Health Initiative is conducting outreach to health care and senior service providers in other counties as much as it can, speaking to groups who want to help LGBT people and understand their special needs.

“I think our job more and more these days is helping mainstream folks where local low-cost clinics and similar services are provided understand our needs,” Ellis said.

When it comes to youth, Atlanta seems less organized in offering safe spaces for them to go. YouthPride, once a shiny gem serving LGBT young people, has been mired in controversy in recent years. However, it still operates a facility in the West End and seems to hold regular discussion groups.

JustUs ATL, created by former YouthPride members, is making its presence well-known in the community and holds discussion groups for young people every week at borrowed space at Positive Impact, an HIV/AIDS organization in Midtown. JustUs ATL is currently seeking to secure its own space.

AID Atlanta’s Evolution Project has its own center located on Juniper Street where young black gay and bisexual men can meet for social activities as well as discussion groups, book readings and movie screenings. Lost-N-Found Youth helps homeless LGBT young people find jobs or get back in school and puts them on a road to permanent housing.

A new grassroots organization, QueerUp Atlanta, is a group of youth who want to ensure politics remains at the forefront of young people’s minds as they become active in their communities.

Taylor Alexander, 20, of Griffin, Ga., moved to Atlanta two years ago to attend Georgia State University. As one of the founders of Queer Up Atlanta, Alexander is impressed with the resources and spaces for queer people now available, especially on college campuses.

Alexander first came out as bisexual at 13, then as gay at 18. Last year, Alexander started identifying more under the “trans spectrum.”

Young people are starting to mobilize for themselves rather than waiting for the adults to lead the way, Alexander said, pointing to JustUs ATL, a completely youth-led organization, as an example.

Erasing ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ within our own communities

When it comes to racism, sexism or transphobia, LGBT people are just as guilty as our heterosexual counterparts. But why? If we are discriminated against because of who we are, why do we continue to discriminate against others for being who they are?

Paulina Helm-Hernandez works as co-director of Southerners on New Ground, which helps empower LGBT people, especially people of color, living in rural areas on such issues as workers rights and immigration. SONG is working on a new campaign playing off the SCOTUS marriage equality rulings about how we can “marry the movement.”

Marriage equality is “a kind of culmination, if you will, of the LGBT movement. It is a really important and symbolic issue,” said Helm-Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant.

When North Carolina voters approved a same-sex marriage ban last year, there was a backlash against people of color by both progressives and those opposed to the LGBT movement, she said. But LGBT people cannot blame others for our losses, she said.

People who are opposed to anti-immigration legislation, violence, racial profiling as well as LGBT issues gravitate to SONG and its work. And SONG works to help people understand that we are all interconnected in our struggles, she said.

A transgender woman who cannot get a job deserves as much attention as a white man who wants to marry his partner. The better we understand that, the stronger we become as an alliance for full equality, she said.

Cheryl Courtney-Evans, a transgender activist, said she wishes there weren’t so many letters in the label for our community — LGBTQIIA, for example, is too many letters and leads to a kind of segregation itself.

As a black trans woman, Courtney-Evans has lived through racism and transphobia from people she thought were her allies.

“As a trans person and person of color, it’s like a double whammy,” she said. “We are in many ways doubly discriminated against.”

This week, Courtney-Evans traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of the National Center for Transgender Equality to lobby for the passage of ENDA, an issue she is passionate about. Trans people continue to be the most discriminated against in the workforce.

But the transphobia existing within the LGB community — as well as larger society — must be constantly addressed and must stop, she said.

“The only way I see people getting beyond or correcting transphobia is a greater interaction between LGB and the trans community and for LGB people to get to know trans people,” she said.

“Many don’t know more about trans people than what they see on the street or on stage and make no attempt to go any further, so they don’t know the day-to-day existence of transgender people,” she said.

People who travel in the same gay circles and go to the same gay clubs without venturing outside their comfort zones will not learn of the experiences and struggles of those who are not as fortunate as they are, she explained.

“You expect heterosexual people to respect your life [as a gay person], to respect your same-gender loving relationships and right to marry, then be open enough to respect how someone identifies even if it is different than you. Let’s all be mutually respectful,” she said.

Alexander of GSU, who is black and Native American, said he believes for a majority of people, “There’s a certain level of dissatisfaction of inclusion in Atlanta.”

“It’s hard to find a person of color in queer-minded publications. We are in the hub of the civil rights movement, but there is always that racial tension, especially in the  [LGBT] community. All our own struggles are interconnected,” he said.

Aligning ourselves with other groups

Mary Anne Adams quotes the late Audre Lorde, the inspiration behind ZAMI NOBLA, when she discusses the reasons why LGBT people must team up with others to defeat discrimination.

“The late Audre Lorde, who described herself as a black-lesbian feminist mother lover poet, once said, ‘There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we don’t live single issue lives.’ I think this speaks volumes regarding the marriage equality issue in the context of all the systematic violence and discrimination that negatively impacts our communities,” Adams said.

Adams serves as an example of how she believes all of us should lead our lives. She has made a conscious decision to live and do work in multiple communities: aging, environmental justice, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

“All of these issues impact queer people, all of these issues impact me,” she said.

Adams said it’s important that queer people are gathering in Atlanta and across the country for “Day of Decision” rallies when SCOTUS hands down its rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA. But there are other important rulings to come as well.

“The court is expected to issue a ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, challenging the school’s Affirmative Action Policy, and Shelby County v. Holder, challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Shouldn’t we also gather to offer support for these rulings, and to stand in solidarity with these groups?” she asked.

“If we are to conduct our work using a social justice framework, we have to seriously align ourselves with progressive groups, marginalized communities, people of color, women/youth organizations, and stand up and show up for them, as we expect them to support us,” she added.

“We are all in this together as collaborators and partners.”