November 8, 2016. That's the next possible date for another LGBT barrier to be broken in Georgia—getting an openly gay man elected to the state legislature. Roughly a dozen have tried and failed in the last decade, with three going down last November (Rashad Taylor came out while in office in 2011, but subsequently lost in his 2012 bid for re-election). Up next to try are Rafer Johnson and Josh Noblitt.
Johnson, a flight attendant at Delta Air Lines and a community advocate, announced his bid for the House District 62 seat in April. But it wasn't the first time he's considered running for office.
A few years ago he went through campaign training with the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to getting openly LGBT people elected to public office. A seat opened on the Fulton County Commission after that, but he passed on running.
When state Rep. Ladawn Blackett Jones (D-Atlanta) announced earlier this year that she would not be running again for the HD62 seat in 2016, Johnson started encouraging others to run, but they told him he should do it instead. Johnson says he told his husband, Kelly Johnson, a board member with Georgia Equality, about the responses, and Kelly pulled out an application to run for the seat that was already filled out.
“He told me, 'We've all been discussing this, we've just been waiting for you to get to the answer,'” says Johnson, who is making economic growth the centerpiece of his campaign.
He is no stranger to public service, having served as the chair of Fulton County's Housing Authority, national co-chair of the Black Gay Men's Network and as a board member for Atlanta Pride.
Johnson laments the fact that no openly gay man has been elected to the legislature, saying, “We've got to break that lavender ceiling so that we have the best and the brightest serving the entire state.”
But he sees Georgia as being in the midst of a transition on LGBT issues. Voters will decide whether he's right next November.
Public safety centerpiece of hate crime victim Noblitt's campaign
Some say a higher power might be needed to get an openly gay man elected to the Georgia legislature. Enter Josh Noblitt, the openly gay Minister of Social Justice at Saint Mark United Methodist Church, who announced his candidacy for the House District 59 seat in May.
Noblitt is close with the current holder of the seat, state Rep. Margaret Kaiser (D-Atlanta), and has even shadowed her two or three times each legislative session over the last few years. When Kaiser announced in March that she would forego a 2016 reelection effort and instead make a run for mayor in 2017, Noblitt stepped in to announce his run.
Citing his position as president of his neighborhood association and as vice chair of his neighborhood planning unit, Noblitt says, “I've just really enjoyed that level of civic engagement and it just felt like a really logical next step for me.”
Noblitt made headlines in 2010 after being attacked at gunpoint along with his then-partner in an anti-gay hate crime in Piedmont Park. The attack eventually led to the formation of an Atlanta Police LGBT Advisory Board, of which Noblitt was a member. The board, however, has fallen off in recent years.
He's making public safety the centerpiece of his campaign, citing his “unique interaction with the criminal justice system” considering his role as a victim in the hate crime, his previous work in the Georgia Public Defender's Office and current role as chaplain for the Atlanta Police Department.
“Having those three unique perspectives and also being the president of my neighborhood association and hearing complaints from neighbors around public safety issues, I feel like I have a lot to bring to the table around that particular issue,” says Noblitt, who has raised just over $30,000 as of a June 30 campaign finance report.
In recent years, Noblitt has been an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality, speaking at numerous marriage equality rallies as well as at many rallies opposing Georgia’s so-called “religious freedom” bill.
He doesn't know why an openly gay man has yet to be elected to the legislature, saying it's hard to compare his election with previous elections since all have been in different districts with different demographics and candidates; but he remains hopeful.
“The times are very different even from one year ago. We've got marriage equality, we've got the end of DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], we've got all kinds of advancements happening in a way that's changing hearts and minds of folks around LGBT issues.”
Rafer Johnson House District 62, which includes portions of College Park, Douglasville, East Point and unincorporated portions of Fulton and Douglas counties.
Josh Noblitt House District 59, which includes the neighborhoods of Poncey-Highland, Little Five Points, Inman Park, Reynoldstown, North Ormewood Park, Glenwood Park, Ormewood Park, Boulevard Heights, Grant Park, The Villages at Carver, South Atlanta, Lakewood Heights, Polar Rock, Perkerson Park, East Point, Colonial Hills, Frog Hollow, Conley Hills, Semmes Park, Fort Valley and Greenbriar.