Stacey Abrams talks tough on fighting RFRA, HIV, discrimination as governor

Stacey Abrams delivered a one-two punch to LGBTQ voters on Saturday, first pitching her progressive track record to LGBTQ influencers and then to gay media outlets as the Democrat ramps up her campaign for governor.

The former state lawmaker and House Minority Leader discussed her track of supporting LGBTQ-inclusive legislation and fighting against "religious freedom" bills during a roundtable with LGBTQ elected officials and activists.

She followed that pitch in an interview with Project Q Atlanta and Georgia Voice to talk in-depth about anti-LGBTQ "religious freedom" legislation, her plans to fight HIV, taking part in her first Pride parade as a candidate, and the origins of her commitment to LGBTQ equality. The roundtable and her sit-down with gay media outlets were firsts for a major party candidate for governor.

You and Democratic opponent Stacey Evans marched in the Pride parade last October, marking the first time a major party candidate for governor took part in the event. What was it like for you?

"It was extraordinary. It was not only fun and a vibrant experience, but it meant a lot to me to be able to walk right behind John Lewis and to be in lockstep almost literally with Planned Parenthood as we went down the parade route. Walking along that route, it was reflective of Georgia. The diversity of the community, the diversity of the ways people express themselves is emblematic of how strong diversity is in the State of Georgia. To be allowed to stand in solidarity was deeply humbling and so I had fun."

Metro Atlanta is facing an HIV epidemic and rural areas in Georgia also struggle to address it. What would you do as governor to combat HIV in the state?

"I think Medicaid expansion is the crux of the conversation because it's not simply about the coverage rates of those who do not have access to health insurance. It's also about the investment we can make in our medical facilities across the state, being able to target those dollars to the most acute needs.

The rising rates of HIV/AIDS in the State of Georgia, not only in the metro Atlanta area but statewide, requires that we treat this as the crisis that it is. If we are continuing to refuse those dollars, we are refusing access to healthcare, we are refusing access to those doctors that we need to be in those counties where treatment is not currently available.

It's also about creating an overall atmosphere where the State of Georgia affirmatively and openly talks about the challenges that we face, that we talk about HIV/AIDS the same way we have to have conversations about maternal mortality rates. Georgia's response to public health crises, and its response to the medical needs of its citizens, is woefully inadequate right now. And I want to be a governor who's having very thoughtful and honest conversations. Unless we can talk about it, we can't address it."

Where does your passion and commitment to LGBTQ issues come from?

"It comes from growing up in a family that faced discrimination and having parents who were, even as teenagers, a part of the Civil Rights Movement. They raised us with a sense of responsibility for every community that you don't fight for yourself alone, you fight for everyone.

When we moved to Georgia, it was the first time I really had a stark conversation about the LGBTQ community when I attended Saint Mark United Methodist Church. But it raised in my mind for the first time the fact that where I had grown up, the discrimination was usually based on race or on national origin. Where I grew up in Mississippi, we had a large population of Vietnamese and I saw the racial discrimination that I faced as an African-American also impacted one of my earliest childhood friends., who was part of the [Mariel boatlift]. I watched how she was treated and so for me, it's always been about moving outside of my own personal experiences as a black woman to really think about how this discrimination affects other communities.

When I confronted the conversations facing the LGBTQ community, both as a young woman at Saint Mark and then a student at Spellman College – it's a school of black women and still there's a minority community that was being discriminated against. I have the power to do something and my responsibility is to always use my power to help fight discrimination and create opportunities for inclusion."

Opponents of 'religious freedom' legislation often cite the negative impact the legislation could have on the state's economy. But what about its impact on LGBTQ people?

"I've fought RFRA from its inception when it was first offered as legislation back in 2015 when the author brought it to me to co-sponsor because he said I know your parents are ministers and you have very strong Christian values, do you want to sign this bill? I said no and then I went and told on him and I called the lobbyists I knew, I called [Georgia Equality lobbyist] Cathy Woolard and I called [Georgia Equality Executive Director] Jeff Graham and I said this bill has just been put in front of me. You guys need to start paying attention because this is coming. The following year, in 2016, I tried to circumvent the terrible nature of the bill by working on the Pastor Protection Act, which got hijacked by the Senate and turned into this horrific FADA bill. I fought the Speaker of the House to try and kill it.

We talk about it as an economic issue and it is. It has an effect on our economy, it has an effect on the film industry and companies want to come here. It's also a moral issue. We should not be a state of discrimination. We should not condone using our laws and using faith as a justification for bigotry. And so I will continually fight against it.

I'm pleased that the Speaker of the House, that the Governor of Georgia have both signaled that in this year they will not support it. But i know that the people who are in the legislature aren't going anywhere. We must have a governor who pledges to never sign that bill but even more, pledges to reject even the bill existing and fights hard from its first introduction to make sure it never gets a hearing and certainly never gets to the governor's desk. "

During the roundtable with LGBTQ elected officials and influencers, Abrams strongly denounced 'religious freedom' legislation and discussed how she would address it on the campaign trail if Republicans who support it criticize her position.

"I intend in every debate and every conversation to strongly and vociferously oppose any notion that 'religious freedom' legislation has any space in any room in Georgia. It's going to be political theater and I will play my part and say that this is absolutely a non-starter and that it is an asinine, backwards and bigoted approach in a state where we know that this is the wrong thing to do.

But the practical reality is this. The next Governor of Georgia simply has to stop the bill from coming and you can do that."

Part of it is the signal you send and what you will entertain, and what is the cost of entertaining that conversation. People will understand there is a cost to entertaining legislation that purports to discriminate. They will know that as governor, I will not tolerate it and I will be very angry having to have that conversation."