‘True hero’ Joan Garner dies after cancer fight

Joan Garner, vice chair of the Fulton County Commission and its first-ever openly LGBT member, died Tuesday after a long fight against breast cancer.

Garner, 65, died just days after commissioners and the county honored her for her fight against cancer and advocacy on HIV and other health issues. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.

Tributes poured in from LGBT Atlantans, elected officials and friends of Garner.

John Eaves, chair of the Fulton County Commission, said colleagues are "heartbroken."

"On behalf of the Board of Commissioners, we are heartbroken by the loss of our colleague and friend, Vice Chair Joan P. Garner, who passed away this morning after a lengthy fight with triple-negative breast cancer," Eaves said in a prepared statement.

"We will miss her thoughtful service, her passion for equity, and, especially, her smile and her warmth. Our thoughts and prayers are with her spouse and our friend, Judge Jane Morrison, as well as the rest of her family," he added.

Mayor Kasim Reed called Garner's death "a terrible loss." "We will miss her," he said in a tweet.

Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president and the state's first openly LGBT elected official, said "my heart is broken today." Via Georgia Voice:

Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, the first openly LGBT elected official in Georgia history, told Georgia Voice, “Commissioner Garner was a friend and my heart is broken today. She exemplified all that was good about a public  servant – honest, kind, hardworking, truly representative of the greater good. We are all better people from knowing her and benefiting from her contributions to our community. May she rest in peace and we all surround and support her wife, Jane, though this incredibly sad time.”

Rashad Taylor, who came out as a state lawmaker and became Georgia's first openly gay man to serve in the state House, called Garner "a great woman with a warm heart and amazing spirit. She is loved and she will be missed."

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, called Garner "a true hero."

In both her personal and professional lives, Joan was a tireless advocate for LGBT Georgians, people living with HIV and others. The impact she had on our communities is immeasurable and will continue to be felt for years to come. Our community has lost a true hero today, but she will not soon be forgotten.

Commissioner Garner fought breast cancer for years, and never let it keep her from fighting for her community. Many of us will remember her tenacious appearance at the rally for marriage equality after the US Supreme Court had declared same-sex marriage constitutional. In treatment for cancer, she wore a scarf on her head, but it didn’t affect her way of making everyone in the crowd feel loved and embraced. Her treatment may have taken her hair, but it certainly hadn’t broken her spirit.

Cindy Abel, a filmmaker and longtime LGBT activist, commended Garner for  her "life of service." 

Feeling so sad that Joan P. Garner has left this plane, after a beautifully-lived life of service and love with Jane Morrison. A power couple to be sure - power that emanated first and foremost from their hearts long before attaining their respective titles. This is one of my favorite photos of them, when Jane was sworn in and Joan proudly held her. Much love to them always. Our world has lost a warm and bright light.

Garner was commissioner for District 4, which includes Midtown. Garner became the first-ever openly gay member of the commission when she won election in 2010. She coasted to re-election in 2014 and faced no opposition in November when she won a third term to the District 4 post on the commission. A special election will be held to fill the remainder of Garner's term.

In October 2015, the commission honored Garner by proclaiming “Joan P. Garner Appreciation Day in Fulton County.” The resolution also called Garner "a leader and advocate for health" who serves as a "pillar of hope" for women fighting breast cancer. The honor came as Garner rejoined the board after cancer treatment.

Last week, the commission honored Garner a second time by naming a conference room at the county's new health building after her and establishing a scholarship program for students interested in county government and health and human services.

On Jan. 4, commissioners named Garner the board's new vice chair.

Last year, Garner helped launch an ambitious effort to eradicate HIV in Fulton.

UPDATE | Condolences and tributes continue to come from elected officials and LGBT organizations that worked with Garner.

From Simone Bell, Southern Regional director for Lambda Legal, where Garner has served as a board member:

"Lambda Legal is heartbroken at the news of Joan Garner’s passing. She was a dedicated member of Lambda Legal’s board and a dear friend to many.
 
“This is a sad loss for the city of Atlanta and Fulton County. Our hearts go out to all who knew her and were touched by her loving spirit. Joan was a trailblazer in our movement for equality in Georgia and across the South. In her work with many organizations and communities, including being a founding Member of SONG (Southerners On New Ground), she served as a mentor to me and countless others who wanted to devote their lives to justice.
 
“When I met Joan Garner when I was nineteen, she was doing what she would continue to do until the end—standing up for the rights of the most vulnerable. She is a woman who never stopped fighting for social justice. Joan was fearless, compassionate and gifted.
 
“Joan was part of the Lambda Legal family. In addition to being a member of Lambda Legal’s National Board from 1996-1998, she was a longtime Liberty Circle member, and her wife, Fulton County State Court Judge Jane Morrison, was also the founding director of the Lambda Legal Southern Regional Office based in Atlanta. 
 
"Our thoughts and condolences are with Jane, her family and loved ones.  We have lost a community leader, colleague and friend.  We will honor her memory by continuing to work for equality. It is what she asked of us"

From Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed:

"I am deeply saddened by the passing of my friend and colleague, Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner.

Joan was respected by all who had the privilege to work with her. She was a true community leader, fighting for the rights of LGBT women and men, including pushing for domestic partner benefits for City of Atlanta employees. The people of Fulton County have lost a treasured voice, but her impact and legacy will not be forgotten. 

My thoughts and prayers are with Commissioner Garner’s wife, Judge Jane Morrison, and all her loved ones."

From Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan, who is the council's only openly LGBT member:

"Atlanta lost one our finest public leaders today. Joan's civic passions were reflected brightly through her work on the Fulton County Commissioner and her decades of community service leading up to that,” said Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan. “She was a role model, an inspiring colleague, and a dear friend that will be deeply missed. Our thoughts are with her wife Jane, family, and friends during this difficult time."

From the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS, where Garner served as vice chair:

It is with great sadness that the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS learned of the passing of Vice Chair Joan P. Garner.  Our deepest sympathy and condolences go out to her wife, Judge Jane Morrison, and her family. We remember Joan for her passion for public health and social justice. She was an unwavering champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS and equal rights for those living with HIV and AIDS as well as the LGBTQ community.  She understood that HIV was a product of racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, addiction, housing and food insecurities, and unequal access to education and healthcare services, and she was willing to tackle the health and social inequities that fuel  the HIV epidemic. 

Her dedication to HIV in Georgia predates her time as a county commissioner, beginning in the early days of the epidemic in the 1990’s as a member of the Georgia AIDS Task Force.  In 2014 when Vice Chair Garner heard the most recent statistics about rates of new infections of HIV in Georgia and Fulton County she said, “I was floored, we have to do something about this”. And that is exactly what she did. Together with Chairman Eaves, Vice Chair Garner quickly took action to establish the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS on December 17, 2014. 

The work of the Task Force to build a Strategy to End AIDS in Fulton County continues and this work will be part of her rich legacy.  Her passion and leadership will be sorely missed but we will carry her spirit within us as we commit to make the End of AIDS a reality in Fulton County and the region.

Jonathan Colasanti, MD, MSPH
Co-Chair, Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS
 
Daniel Driffin
Co-Chair, Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS