Gay state Reps. Keisha Waites and Karla Drenner have been noticeably absent from the press conferences, rallies and committee hearings about “religious freedom” legislation. But behind the scenes, they say they’ve been working with lawmakers to make the case against the anti-gay bills.
Drenner (photo left) and Waites (right) – the only openly LGBT lawmakers in the General Assembly until Rep. Park Cannon took office Feb. 22 – spoke to Project Q Atlanta as a national backlash grows over House Bill 757, which would allow faith-based organizations to discriminate against LGBT people and others based on religious beliefs. They discussed how they view their roles as legislators, the behind-the-scenes conversations they’ve been having, and the need to engage with moderate lawmakers.
“We already know where myself, Karla, and Park are going to be on these issues,” Waites said. “The question is, how many moderates can we flip?”
“You had three Republicans that voted against that gun bill, that live in the city of Atlanta, that have a huge LGBT constituency. Those are the people that we need to be working on, getting them as allies. People like Beth Beskin, people like Wendell Willard. You know those are the folks we need to be trying to figure out,” Waites added.
Rep. Wendell Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican, is chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which has considered some of the “religious freedom” legislation this session. It's also where Sen. Josh McKoon's “religious freedom” bill remains bottled up, with Willard indicating he's in no hurry to reconsider it.
Rep. Beth Beskin, an Atlanta Republican whose district includes parts of Buckhead, gutted an amendment in early February that would have added “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to a public accommodations bill from state Rep Rich Golick, a moderate Smyrna Republican. (Drenner is a co-sponsor of the bill).
Golick’s bill mirrored federal civil rights legislation that protects access to hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other public accommodations on the basis of “race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Rep. Taylor Bennett, a Brookhaven Democrat, proposed an amendment to expand the list of protected categories to include “sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or veteran’s status.” Beskin pushed for the amendment to include only “sex,” which is what ultimately passed out of the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislation, House Bill 849, did not pass the full House ahead of Crossover Day on Monday, meaning it is likely dead for the legislative session.
'We can have a meeting in the middle'
Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director, said much of the fight over “religious freedom” legislation has taken place this session in the Senate, where Drenner and Waites have little influence.
“I would then ask you to keep in mind that last year all of the battle and heat and energy took place on the House side. This year it’s on the Senate side. And that is probably the most significant factor in all of this so far,” Graham said.
Drenner and Waites said their efforts against anti-gay legislation sometimes is much more basic, such as addressing questions from lawmakers who question if they've been gay their entire life and dispelling stereotypes about being gay.
“You know a lot of times I’ve found that people have these stereotypes about gay people. You know, even though they may have people in their family, right, or their neighbors. It’s not until, I think, that you really sit down and try to have a civil conversation with one of these individuals,” Drenner said.
Both Waites and Drenner voted for the Pastor Protection Act in mid-February, the legislation from Rep. Kevin Tanner that was later hijacked by the Senate Rules Committee and turned into a “Trojan horse” stuffed full of anti-gay measures. The version Waites and Drenner voted on was largely innocuous and protected clergy and religious institutions from performing same-sex wedding ceremonies, a protection that already exists under current law.
“We can have a meeting in the middle. I supported the Pastor’s Protection Act,” Waites said.
“Both sides have to moderate their position somewhat,” she said.
“I had a really hard time grappling with this whole idea that [Evangelicals and the religious right] were being attacked, right?” Drenner added. “Because from where I sit I’m thinking how, how are you being attacked? As soon as I take a couple of steps back, and I think about what they really mean when they’re saying attacked. It’s culturally, it’s the changes that are occurring.”
Drenner reiterated that this is the first session since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last summer and what's happening under the Gold Dome – and across the nation – is not surprising.
'Part of my mission is to be uncomfortable'
As Drenner and Waites challenge not so gay-friendly views of some lawmakers, they take different approaches. Drenner brings an analytical approach driven by a policy background, while Waites focuses on common values.
“All I ask is that when you take that vote, that you understand that you’re affecting the lives of 10 million people who are law abiding citizens who have just as much right and access to that constitution as you do,” Waites said of her conversations with other lawmakers concerning “religious freedom” legislation.
“That is the argument that I make with representatives and senators. And then I talk about the economic impact that your decision is going to have on our state,” she added.
Drenner uses facts to help counter the emotional arguments from religious conservatives.
“So as a person on the left, I would argue, I would use facts, I would use evidence, I would use numbers. The people on the right are not looking at facts, they’re looking at it from their religious perspective,” Drenner said.
Waites said she is committed to representing her district, and emphasized the importance, to her, of being present at the Capitol to work on a variety of issues.
“I am excited about the fact that my district knows my status as an LGBT woman, but they are proud to have them represent them because they understand that I represent their values. I represent the things that they care about,” Waites said.
Drenner, too, has taken the lead on issues beyond LGBT ones, including the environmental policy that's a big part of her professional background.
But both say they realize that it's up to them to educate other lawmakers and share their LGBT perspectives as the only out legislators at the State Capitol.
“I think that, from my perspective, part of my mission being in the General Assembly is to be uncomfortable. And really to be … in position where I both learn and grow, and the individuals that I might not get the opportunity to talk to might learn and grow,” Drenner said
“It’s important to be able to be in the chamber, to have these discussions and to not get mad and walk away,” Drenner said.