The bittersweet saga of Karla Drenner: politician, pioneer

Early in Drenner’s tenure at the state capitol, the gay rights movement was in one of its darkest political hours, as President George W. Bush stoked anti-gay marriage sentiments nationally, and an annihilating 76 percent of Georgia voters approved a state constitutional amendment prohibiting recognition of gay unions. Today, the president of the United State supports same-sex marriage, and Georgia has four openly gay and lesbian members of the House of Representatives. On Aug. 1, there could be more.

Or there could be one.

“That thought makes me really sad,” said Drenner, who is unopposed for her seventh term and the only LGBT incumbent not engaged in intra-party warfare. “I like the potential of having the largest [LGBT] caucus in the South, and it’s a scary thought that we could go back to having just me.”

Twelve years of turbulence

The first time Drenner attended the Democratic House Caucus meeting after being elected, she heard a couple of male colleagues whispering behind her.

“She’s that lesbian,” Drenner remembers one of them saying. A local TV station ran a story on the history behind Drenner’s potential victory on the evening of her first election in 2000, and she was preceded to the General Assembly by an inordinate amount of press throughout Georgia.

“I think back, I really was not prepared for what happened,” Drenner said. “I wasn’t prepared for the meanness and the snide comments, and the religious elitism, I experienced as a legislator. I came in not being a DeKalb legislator, I came in being the lesbian legislator right off the bat.”

Some colleagues refused to ride the elevator with Drenner, while others brazenly confronted her on the House floor to denounce her as sinful. Drenner chuckled about being assigned to seat 69 during her first legislative session, and is grateful to then-Speaker Tom Murphy for placing her between liberal Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield and conservative Rep. Len Walker, who was surprisingly welcoming to his new neighbor.

“Believe it or not, Len was a right-wing pastor, but both of them really shielded me from some of the other representatives that were less than nice,” she said.

Drenner’s party –  specifically, her new Speaker, Terry Coleman – would not protect her during her second term. Instead, Coleman and state party leaders willingly plunged into an anti-gay political trap whose depths are still unknown.

When Republicans introduced a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004, Drenner became the face of gay resistance. When it was her time to speak during the hours-long debate on the amendment in the House, all shuffling and side conversations inside the chamber ceased, Drenner making a heartfelt plea amid rapt silence.

A few minutes later, the constitutional amendment fell three votes short of what was necessary to send it to voters, and Drenner and Benfield erupted in a jubilant hug when the tally appeared on the House voting screen.

The amendment was resurrected by a procedural tactic, but gay rights supporters hoped it would languish in committee until the legislative session expired. Against the warnings of Drenner and others that the amendment was simply an attempt to drive conservative voters to the polls in November, Speaker Coleman forced a re-vote in the House during the last days of the 2004 session, where it passed by three votes.

In November 2004, the constitutional amendment passed by a 2-to-1 margin, Democrats lost more than 25 House seats, and the GOP became that body’s majority for the first time since Reconstruction, eventually redrawing district maps to emaciate Democrats.

“Speaker Coleman, I think, is really to blame for this,” Drenner said. “It was stupidity, and we’re going to pay the next 18 years of Republican control because of one really stupid bill that we played right into their hand.”

Queer karma

The marriage amendment fight has also had a long-term effect on the gay rights movement in Georgia, which is as unprepared for a major political fight as it was in 2004, Drenner said.

“The gay community as a whole, they didn’t believe we were going to [defeat the amendment during the ballot initiative], so they opted out,” said Drenner, who chaired the campaign against the ballot initiative. “That was the saddest part. I really believe the only way we lose is if we don’t fight, and clearly we didn’t fight.

“They were opted out before, but now they really opt out because the amendment was such a crushing blow,” she added. “They’ve almost resigned themselves to, ‘As long as I can live in Midtown, and I can go to a restaurant and I can be treated equally, that should be the level of expectation that I have.’”

Having at least five high-profile LGBT candidates for the state legislature – four incumbents and the most well-funded non-incumbent imaginable, as well as three more out gay candidates on the ballot – defies the hopeless outlook that is often vogue in states like Georgia, but it also suggests a cohesiveness that has been lacking in the gay rights movement, including among gay politicians.

Drenner and other LGBT state legislators – Simone Bell, Rashad Taylor and Keisha Waites, all Atlanta-area Democrats – may commiserate after a House preacher-of-the-day goes on a homophobic tirade, but Drenner characterized  LGBT Democrats as “a disparate caucus, at best.”

“People want to find their own way, and unless you ask me for help, I don’t want to intrude upon your own personal growth process,” Drenner said. “But eventually before I leave, I hope that we will come together more as a caucus and support not just one another, but support the common movement toward gay rights.”

The solidarity Drenner feels with other LGBT incumbents grinds against the loyalty and friendship she has with several of their opponents in the Democratic primary. She has tried to stay neutral in the races pitting a gay or lesbian lawmaker against a proven ally, where Republicans drew them into new districts with two Democratic incumbents, meaning only one can emerge victorious.

“[Redistricting] is one of the most destructive experiences that this caucus will go through because whoever wins will be so brutally damaged from the campaign process – who didn’t help who, who helped the other one,” Drenner said. “Coming together as a caucus, as hard as it’s been anyway, it will be very, very challenging.”

As Georgia Democrats continue to reap the blows of their support for banning same-sex marriage, that issue’s ascension to acceptance seems increasingly forgone. When our state’s political landscape will catch up remains unknown.


Top photo: State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) became the Deep South’s first openly gay state legislator in 2001 and is now set to win her 7th term. (by Bo Shell)