It was about 10 p.m. on June 20 when a tangible mood shift fell over the Westin Atlanta Perimeter hotel. The crowd, packed tightly into a ballroom, spilling out into the hallways and foyer and even the outside area with a view of the King and Queen Buildings, had until moments before been cheering and high-fiving, dancing to blaring music with beer in hand, buying pins and bumper stickers and hugging women from Planned Parenthood.
Suddenly, the cheers died down. CNN anchors’ voices came over the speakers, announcing that Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff just lost the 6th District House seat to Republican candidate Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state.
The “boos” started. So did chants of “not my congresswoman.” So did the tears.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Marietta resident Jan Yanes, an Ossoff supporter. “We have worked so hard and knocked on so many doors and I don’t know what it’s gonna take for people to educate themselves about the real issues, and not get distracted.”
District 6 and LGBT rights
Some of those “real issues” are where the two candidates stood on LGBT rights.
Throughout the campaign, Ossoff touted himself as an ally, and the Georgia Young Democrats Stonewall Caucus even hosted a LGBT families meet-and-greet in his honor. Handel, however, stayed quiet for the most part.
Just before the election, Handel told a Reporter Newspapers writer — and former Georgia Voice editor — that her “faith calls me to a very different place on” the issue of same-sex adoption. Following a debate against Ossoff, Handel also refused to speak with openly queer state Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) about issues affecting the LGBT community. Throughout the campaign, and after the election, Handel’s team did not return repeated interview requests from Georgia Voice.
Prior to the 2017 special election, Handel had a rocky LGBT rights record. During her early 2000s campaign for Fulton County Commission, Handel supported domestic partner benefits and was both a member of and endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans. She flipped from those positions during later campaigns for both secretary of state and governor, saying she never joined the Log Cabin Republicans, and revealed she doesn’t believe gay parents are in a child’s best interest.
“Karen Handel’s record, unfortunately, speaks for itself. It was part of the reason why HRC was engaged in the Georgia 6th race,” said Chris Sgro, communications director for Human Rights Campaign. “She’s refused to commit to protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially transgender Georgians from discrimination, and that, coupled with the fact that Donald Trump — who has been an enemy to our community in his time in office — gave his support, we’re obviously very worried for her time in Congress and intend to make sure that she’s held accountable for her actions.”
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, said he hopes Handel will “demonstrate an awareness” that LGBT families are a part of America.
“I think that Ms. Handel should understand that she was elected to represent all of the people in her district. There are a number of LGBT people in that district and, for the most part, whether they live in Karen Handel’s district, whether they live elsewhere in the United States, desire nothing more than to live our lives in quiet dignity,” Angelo said. “I would advise Ms. Handel that being LGBT goes far beyond marriage. There are human rights abuses taking place against LGBT individuals abroad. There’s discrimination taking place against LGBT individuals here within the United States and it’s important to stand up against that, and we would certainly encourage her to do that.”
Angelo, who used to work in a foster care agency, said he saw firsthand the “crisis” of parentless children.
“I have seen youth who are disabled, who have learning disabilities or who otherwise are seeking a place to call home, appreciate nothing more than to be welcomed into a household, whether that household is headed by two individuals of the same sex or whether it is headed by individuals of the opposite sex,” he said. “Their No. 1 concern is that they have parents. … We can talk about religious liberty. We can talk about … marriage. But when we talk about adoption, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about children who are seeking a home, and I would hope that Congresswoman Handel would see that above anything else.”
How LGBT friendly is the GOP?
“We have seen a massive sea change in the GOP in the one year, in less than one year since the Republican National Convention, a convention that was marked by historic moments that included affirmative mentions of the LGBT community from Newt Gingrich, Peter Thiel, even Ted Cruz, and of course our then-nominee and now-president Donald Trump,” Angelo said. “Leadership comes from the top and I don’t think it’s any accident that you’re seeing far more muted rhetoric when it comes to LGBT issues among Republican elected officials and party leaders.”
Scott Taylor, a Republican from Virginia, introduced the “Fair and Equal Housing Act” that would protect LGBT Americans from being discriminated against.
“You have a young Republican, former Navy Seal, … and his first act as a newly minted Republican in the House of Representatives was to file a piece of legislation that would protect LGBT individuals from discrimination,” Angelo said. “Right now, that bill has — I believe — six Republican co-sponsors.”
For many of them, it was the first pro-LGBT legislation they put their name to.
Angelo said Republican legislators put their names on the bipartisan resolution condemning anti-gay violence in Chechnya, and there was support to keep anti-transgender amendments from being added to Pentagon policies related to military service.
Both Angelo and Sgro said their organizations would be open to sitting down with Handel as she takes her seat in Congress. At least one of her constituents hopes she’ll do so with open ears.
“I want her to listen because Jon listened. And so far, she has not made herself available to the public, her constituents,” Yanes said. “It’s always behind closed doors and I want her to make herself available to the public, on the street corner or in the grocery store, and she doesn’t.”