Liliana Bakhtiari made history as the first LGBTQ Muslim elected official in Georgia / Courtesy photo

2021 Person of the Year: Liliana Bakhtiari

Editor’s note: Liliana Bakhtiari uses she/they pronouns. Both are utilized throughout the article. 

This fall, Liliana Bakhtiari made history. Elected to the Atlanta City Council to represent District 5, she became the first Muslim LGBTQ elected official in the state of Georgia. Her second time running, she first ran in 2017, after the Muslim ban happened, afraid that her family would be impacted by the ban.

Losing by just 247 votes that year, they regrouped and ran again to win. In an interview with Georgia Voice, Bakhtiari discussed their win and the journey that brought them to it, including their first time running for office.

“I ran again because everything I ran on got worse and because I spent the last four years coalition building, so I could be a more effective candidate and legislator,” she said.

Public service was a big part of Bakhtiari’s life from a very young age, bolstered by her father, an Atlanta pharmacy owner, who escaped to the United States in the 1980s.

“I started marching with my dad when I was about eight,” she said. “The marches I went to were against the Iranian regime, and so from a very young age, it was meeting people who had lost family members, who had seen executions. I was raised very much with the understanding of the urgency of these issues…paying it forward and public service is a very big cornerstone of my upbringing, because of that and because of my dad’s faith.”

Now, Bakhtiari plans to take on some of the most prevalent challenges she sees in the Atlanta community and hopes to join the finance, community development, and transit committees in particular. Her list of issues to tackle is long, and includes topics such as redefining affordable housing, dedicating focus to supporting people living with HIV and AIDS, closing the opportunity gap between Black and white students in public schools, and providing legal counsel and assistance to people facing eviction.

One particular part of their plan that sets them apart from many other council members relates to their identity as a member of the LGBTQ community. Bakhtiari hopes to be part of establishing an LGBTQ Caucus on the council and hopes to work to establish low-barrier to no-barrier shelters, particularly for queer youth.

“I was part of the team that launched our first low barrier shelter at the very beginning of the pandemic, and the level of homophobia and transphobia was so severe,” she said. “That was hugely problematic. Now I’m finally in a position to really help spearhead that. I want to be working with the Trans Housing Coalition, Georgia Equality, and other organizations and making sure that we are uplifting their platforms and what they’re already doing to bring housing to these individuals.”

Bakhtiari’s win is no small feat. They faced xenophobic opponent attacks on their identity and family and dealt with a great deal of homophobia and misogyny on the campaign trail.

“We tend to romanticize trailblazing — and there are awesome aspects to it, do not get me wrong,” she said. “But it’s hard, and it is triggering, and I faced a great deal of misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia while running this campaign, a great deal.”

But with the difficulty of running a campaign comes a positive side, too. Bakhtiari’s campaign team knocked on over 20,000 doors in District 5, and she began to see the real impact of their run, even before being elected to office at all.

“The number of seniors we’re already helping, just with health issues with housing, the number of people we kept in their homes during this legislative cycle before we were even in office, because we are there, speaking to them,” she said. “The other minorities who reached out and said it meant everything to them to see someone like them running and it gave them hope. The true gift of this was getting to bring humanity back into politics.”

In spite of the toll running for office took on her mental health, Bakhtiari’s campaign and win made an impact on the community, and they recognize the importance of representation in politics.

“Getting to represent our identities and humanize them to other people….it saves lives,” she said. “It changes things. it gets people invested. It educates them. It makes the biggest difference in the world, and then from there, we get to affect policy and bring in viewpoints that have never been considered before.”