Georgia lawmakers close ‘historic session for LGBTQ rights’

When the gavel fell late Tuesday, Georgia lawmakers ended a 2019 legislative session that saw successful efforts to fight the state’s HIV epidemic, the defeat of anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” legislation and a hate crimes bill go farther than it’s ever gone. 

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the session was “much better on LGBTQ issues than we thought it was going to be.”

“Definitely in the House, you could see the influence of the number of Democrats that won in seats [in 2018] that nobody expected they would win, and how that really allowed for the voices of moderate Republicans to come forward, especially on LGBT issues,” he told Project Q Atlanta. “That’s why you saw that vote on the hate crimes bill come out the way it did.”

House Bill 426 would impose heightened penalties for crimes targeting people based on their sexual orientation, gender, race, color, religion, national origin, mental disability or physical disability. It does not include gender identity as a protected class, but the legislation includes the mention of a perpetrator's “belief or perception” about the protected categories. Supporters of the bill said that would allow it to cover transgender people.

The bill passed in the House, the first time an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes bill has passed in either chamber of the Georgia legislature.

Graham said that vote revealed a path forward, not just on hate crimes, but on LGBTQ issues overall.

“If you look at the number of Republicans that voted for the hate crimes bill, as well as the number of Republicans who decided to take a walk and not take a position on the bill, that gives us a really good list of people to begin to build relationships with,” he said. “Some of the moderate Republicans we already have relationships with. I could really see over the next couple sessions some serious movement on LGBT issues.”

State Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat from Avondale Estates who is one of five openly LGBTQ members of the legislature, said it was difficult to celebrate the passage of the hate crimes bill in the House. Shortly after it passed, lawmakers passed a bill effectively banning abortion in the state. It now awaits Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature. The hate crimes bill later stalled in a Senate committee

“My takeaway was that a lot of the really good things that happened for the gay community were overshadowed by the things that happened to women in this state,” Drenner said. “It was hard to celebrate passing hate crimes in the chamber because it was followed by taking away a woman’s right to choose.”

State Sen. Nikema Williams, chair of the Georgia Democrats, said that this session, Kemp brought “his hate-filled agenda to the governor’s mansion.”

“From sidelining long-overdue hate crimes legislation to taking our state backwards with the abortion ban, Republican lawmakers have chosen again and again to force these extreme bills down our throats, instead of fighting for our shared values as Georgians,” she said in a press release.

State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican from Dacula who sponsored the hate crimes bill, is looking forward to lawmakers reconsidering the bill in 2020.

“It was a great accomplishment to pass a hate crimes bill, which included protected classes, out of the Georgia House of Representatives,” he said. “Unfortunately, the bill did not receive a hearing in Senate committee and I’m hopeful that the bill will be considered next year.”

 

Republicans take on HIV

 

Significant progress was made this year to fight the state’s worst-in-the-nation HIV epidemic. House Speaker David Ralston said before the session started that it was “a serious issue and it’s one that I think we can’t take a blind eye to.” 

Some of his fellow Republicans appeared to agree.

Three House Republicans introduced a package of HIV legislation. A bill that would create a pilot program to provide PrEP to people at high risk of contracting HIV passed both chambers and awaits Kemp’s signature. A bill that creates a needle exchange program that would help reduce HIV rates passed both chambers, and Kemp signed it into law on April 2. A bill to make it easier for HIV-positive Medicaid recipients to receive the most effective medications passed unanimously in the House but got held up in the Senate over cost issues. It will return in 2020.

Graham credited state Rep. Park Cannon (second photo), a Democrat from Atlanta and one of the five LGBTQ members of the legislature, for her work on the legislation.

“She is in her third [full] year now at the legislature and she has made HIV policy issues a central part of the work that she wants to do, and she has built relationships with Republicans where they now understand the importance of these issues,” he said.

Graham was particularly excited about the passage of the needle exchange program bill.

“That’s a piece of legislation that some of us have been working on for 25 or 30 years,” he said.

Drenner said that lawmakers finally caught up with everyone else when it comes to HIV.

“Public opinion has been on our side for a long time on this issue,” she said. “I was happy to see that my colleagues saw that it was important to do something to address the increased outbreaks that we’ve had here in the metropolitan area.”

Graham said there is still much work to be done on the HIV front.

“The big one we didn’t see introduced was HIV criminalization reform,” he said. “But I’m very confident that that will be introduced next year.”

State Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Democrat from Brookhaven and one of the five LGBTQ members of the legislature, told Project Q that he’s looking forward to co-sponsoring HIV decriminalization legislation in 2020. And he's proud of the work that was done in 2019.

“Our increased LGBTQ representation and collective impact has resulted in a historic session for LGBTQ rights this year,” Wilson said.

 

Civil rights, conversion therapy bills coming back

 

State Rep. Sandra Scott, a Democrat from Rex, introduced a sweeping civil rights bill that would protect LGBTQ people and others from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. But the bill, which had no Republican co-sponsors, failed to get any traction.

Graham (third photo) said it was “unfortunate” that the bill didn’t get a hearing.

“We’ll have a different scenario in 2020, especially if we can reintroduce the bill with Republican support, and I think there would be Republicans interested in co-sponsoring the legislation if they were approached early enough in the process,” he said.

Drenner thanked Scott for introducing the legislation.

“It was an honorable effort on her part and much appreciated," she said.

For the first time, a bill banning conversion therapy for minors received a hearing. Wilson introduced the bill in March with no expectations that it would pass before the 2020 legislative session.

Drenner said she was “very, very surprised” about the bill.

“I thought that the hearing went well and there was a lot of progress that was made on that issue this session,” she said.

Graham said lawmakers on the House Regulated Industries committee appeared open to the bill.

“There was a lot of prejudice against transgender people in that hearing with a couple of comments that were made,” he said. “But I feel there was a strong sense that the majority of the people on that committee don’t have strong objections to the bill.”

 

Looking ahead to 2020

 

An anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill stalled in a Senate committee this year, but activists and lawmakers cautioned against assuming that fight is over.

“2020 will once again be an election year and I do fully anticipate that we’ll see greater movement on RFRA than we saw this year,” Graham said.

Drenner said that while social conservatives got the abortion ban, also known as “the heartbeat bill,” passed, they still hold out hope for “religious freedom” legislation next year.

“The social conservatives were appeased by the heartbeat bill,” she said. “But they didn’t get to introduce everything they wanted to.”

Whether a "religious freedom" bill gets traction could depend on the fallout from the abortion ban and how business leaders react, Drenner said.

“They didn’t take a position … and they play an important role in equality, so a lot can happen between now and next January,” she said.

Rep. Sam Park (fourth photo), a Democrat from Lawrenceville and one of the five LGBTQ members of the legislature, said LGBTQ issues moved in the right direction this session, but that plenty of work remains.

“Keep in mind that passage of these bills would require Gov. Kemp's signature and he pledged to support a federal version of RFRA on the campaign trail,” he said. “As we saw with the abortion bill, he is simply doing what he said he was going to do. That concerns me.”

Park said he will continue to advocate for the hate crimes, civil rights, and conversion therapy bills in 2020, but he also looked beyond that to the 2020 election.

“We have a golden opportunity in November 2020 to flip the Georgia House, which would prevent passage of any anti-LGBTQ legislation in Georgia, increase the likelihood of passing these bills, and bring political accountability, vis-a-vis checks and balances, to Georgia,” he said.

 

LGBTQ-related bills in 2019

 

House Bill 19: LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights bill. Introduced in the House in January and failed to get a hearing. It will come back in 2020. 

House Bill 53: Prayer in public school bill. Introduced in the House in January and drew minor concerns from LGBTQ activists. It failed to get a hearing and will return in 2020.

House Bill 133: A bill to modernize K-12 education when it comes to HIV. Introduced in January and failed to get a hearing. Some language from the bill was attached to another bill that also failed to pass. Both bills come back in 2020.

House Bill 158: A bill to give HIV-positive Medicaid recipients the most effective medications. It passed in the House and received a hearing in a Senate committee but no vote. It will be back in 2020.

House Bill 217: Establishes hypodermic syringe and needle exchange programs to reduce HIV. It passed in both chambers and Kemp signed it into law on April 2.

House Bill 290: Pilot program to provide PrEP. It passed in both chambers and now awaits Kemp’s signature to become law.

House Bill 426: Hate crimes bill. The House passed it but it stalled in committee in the Senate. It will be back in 2020.

House Bill 580: Conversion therapy ban for minors. It was filed with no expectations of it passing this year. A hearing was held in March with no vote and it will be back in 2020.

House Bill 719: HIV criminalization. Introduced in the House on Sine Die. It will be back in 2020.

House Resolution 822: A resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Park and the four other openly LGBTQ lawmakers in the House sponsored this. It was read and adopted on April 2. 

Senate Bill 221: Anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill. It was scheduled for a hearing but the sponsor pulled it at the last minute. It will be back in 2020.