Stacey Abrams – a progressive Democrat running for governor – met with LGBTQ elected officials, activists and influencers on Saturday to talk equality and pitch her campaign to become the state's next leader.
The public LGBTQ Policy Roundtable Discussion was a first-of-its-kind event for a major party candidate in the state. It also continued Abrams' embrace of LGBTQ equality, building on her track record as a state lawmaker and House Minority Leader where she backed LGBT legislation and fought anti-LGBT "religious freedom" legislation.
"It doesn't matter what you say you're going to do, it matters what you do," Abrams told the crowd of several dozen LGBT people at her campaign headquarters in Kirkwood.
"It matters what you let people see you doing because we have a responsibility to be forward looking and forward marching and to always be standing in front of issues not waiting for someone to tell you what you have to do," she added.
Abrams and Democratic challenger Stacey Evans were the first major party candidates to participate in the Pride parade last October. Libertarian John Monds took part in the parade and backed marriage equality when he ran for governor in 2010 but Democrat Jason Carter skipped it in 2014.
Abrams has a lengthy record of supporting LGBTQ issues, something she reminded the crowd of during Saturday's event. Her outspoken support is a refreshing departure from Carter's campaign, which raised funds from LGBT supporters behind closed doors but side-stepped equality issues in public and only begrudgingly backed same-sex marriage late in the campaign.
Abrams said her support of LGBTQ issues dates to her days as a student leader at Spellman College in the early 1990s when she approved the creation of a lesbian alliance that had been denied in past years.
"One of my proudest moments was as SGA vice president authorizing that organization on campus. It came at a bit of a cost. I got phone calls and threats and had to have campus security for a while. But for me, the responsibility was to do what was right not what was political," Abrams said.
That progressive approach continued in 2006 when Abrams, running for the state House, was asked by a reporter if she supported same-sex marriage – just two years after voters overwhelmingly rejected gay marriage in a statewide referendum.
"I was a neophyte candidate and so I politely answered I'm in favor of it and got a bunch of phone calls. 'My God Stacey, you're going to lose your election,'" Abrams said.
"But there wasn't a question for me. I didn't workshop my answer. I didn't ask people what they thought. I said what I believed. I don't know why that's not always the answer," she added.
Abrams went on to win that race and later became the first African-American woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly.
"Look at what I've done. Look at who I've been. For my entire life, and certainly my entire public life, I've always stood as an ally because I understand what it means to be discriminated against," Abrams said.
"For those of us who face discrimination based on race or based on gender, we have a superior obligation to stand with others and to always be first in the conversation. If we don't protect everyone's civil rights, none of us have civil rights. I know that to be true from the bottom of my heart," she added.
As a state lawmaker and Minority Leader, Abrams has supported legislation protecting LGBT employees in state government, backed an LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill, helped efforts to combat bullying and fought anti-LGBT "religious freedom" legislation. She's also urged activists to educate lawmakers on transgender issues – a call she repeated on Saturday.
"You have strong allies in the Democratic Party but there are a lot of folks with no idea what's going on. It's not a function of animus; it's a function of ignorance. Part of my responsibility as governor is to help eradicate ignorance," Abrams said.
But Abrams also told the crowd her campaign is broader than LGBT issues, and pivoted to discuss her plans for education, jobs, adult literacy, expanding Medicaid, infrastructure and "building a thriving and diverse economy."
"We have to have a governor who has a plan to actually not just move us ahead but move us far ahead. It's not enough for us to be fighting for survival anymore. We have to be fighting for success," Abrams said.
As the state's chief executive, though, Abrams said she would send a clear message to lawmakers and people across the state that Georgia won't tolerate discrimination. She also pledged to appoint LGBTQ people to state boards and commissions and open state contracts to LGBTQ people.
"It's about protecting communities, the LGBTQ community, from being able to be fired and denied access to housing, access to services. It's about fighting back not only locally but nationally and letting the State of Georgia be a voice not of discrimination but of defense," Abrams said.
"It's about making sure that discrimination of any kind, that from the beginning, the governor is the face of what discrimination will not happen in the State of Georgia and that's why I'm running," she added.