Patrick Saunders: Speaking up to save a life

Joan Garner’s memorial service was last weekend. For those who somehow didn’t know of her, she was the first openly LGBT Fulton County Commissioner, in addition to about 867 other accomplishments in a variety of areas throughout her life.

Sitting in the balcony at Ebenezer Baptist Church during the service, I heard story after story about Garner and the effect she had on people’s lives, and it made me realize I had a story to tell about her as well. Unfortunately, it has to do with what ultimately claimed her life.

It was June 26, 2015, the day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision on marriage equality. There was a rally that afternoon at the Center for Civil and Human Rights downtown, and as I was roaming from spot to spot taking pictures of the speakers and the crowd, I noticed Garner and her wife, Fulton County State Court Judge Jane Morrison, had shown up and were standing behind me.

I also noticed Garner was wearing a headscarf and that one of the sheriff’s deputies assigned to Judge Morrison’s detail had a chair for Garner to sit in. The couple ended up taking the stage and Garner gave a rousing speech. Later, while editing photos from the rally, I noticed some people – including Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves – appearing emotional or outright crying as Garner spoke.

All of that led me to start asking around to sources who would know – is something going on with Garner’s health? Unfortunately, they told me what I didn’t want to hear – it was cancer.

I reached out to Garner’s office to request an interview, letting them know I wanted to ask about some rumors about her health, and that we would not run anything about it unless she confirmed and cared to talk about it.

By the next morning, I was on the phone with Garner, who, after exchanging pleasantries, said, “So Patrick, what do you know?”

I told her what led me to start asking around, and that I was told she had breast cancer, and reminded her that we would not run anything unless she wanted to talk about it.

And she did. She opened up about the diagnosis, her prognosis, how it wasn’t keeping her from work and how, amazingly, she went straight from chemotherapy to the marriage equality rally, saying, “This was just something I could not pass up.”

Garner didn’t have to open up to me about her diagnosis, but she did, which she explained by pointing out that she was known as “the health commissioner,” so this was an opportunity to talk about what it’s like to go through such a trial.

It should be noted that Commissioner Garner and I knew of each other, but we didn’t know each other well at all. In fact, I believe that was our first ever conversation, which makes what she did all the more remarkable.

While the cancer would eventually claim Garner’s life on April 18, I can’t help thinking of the number of people who went out and got breast cancer screenings because she opened up about her fight. She had to know that while she was surrendering some privacy, she could end up saving a life.

When we in the LGBT community lose one of our leaders, one of our elders, their sacrifices need to be pointed out and celebrated. Garner set the bar incredibly high, but in doing so she allowed those who came in her wake to reach just a little bit higher.