Lesbian state lawmaker quits Georgia House

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State Rep. Simone Bell – the first African-American lesbian to win election to a state legislature – is quitting the Georgia House next month to take a job with a gay legal group.

Bell submitted her resignation, effective Nov. 13, to Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday morning. She'll be returning to Lambda Legal to lead its Southern Regional Office in Atlanta. Before she was elected in 2009, Bell worked as an outreach associate and volunteer manager for the organization.

”I’m thrilled to be coming back home to Lambda Legal, an organization that has made such a substantial difference in the lives of LGBT people and people living with HIV in Atlanta and across the South,” Bell said in a press release from Lambda. “I am so proud of what Lambda Legal has accomplished, but my experience in the General Assembly tells me the work cannot stop. This is a particularly exciting time to be a part of Lambda Legal’s work in the South, challenging laws and public policies that discriminate across lines of sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV status, income and race and to achieve full equality for all.”

Lambda said it's excited to have Bell rejoin the organization. Lambda has sued the state to overturn its gay marriage ban and sued the City of Atlanta after police raided the Eagle in 2009.

“We are very pleased to welcome Simone back to Lambda Legal and look forward to the exciting work ahead,” Kevin Cathcart, Lambda's executive director, said in a statement. “Simone has never stopped being a fierce advocate for LGBT people and those living with HIV, and we are delighted that she’s chosen to continue that work with Lambda Legal by leading our Southern Regional Office.

Bell became the second openly gay lawmaker in Georgia when she won a special election in 2009, joining state Rep. Karla Drenner. In 2012, Keisha Waites won a special election and became the third openly gay lawmaker in the state.

Bell told the Georgia Voice that she has been honored to serve as a lawmaker.

“I am honored to have been given the opportunity to serve District 58 and the State of Georgia in the House of Representatives, and I’m proud of the work I’ve accomplished alongside my colleagues to help move Georgia forward,” said Rep. Bell in a statement. “I have truly enjoyed working with representatives on both sides of the aisle and all of the hardworking individuals who are committed to creating laws and policies that reflect the needs of all Georgians. I am looking forward to continuing to improve the lives of people in our state and across the south during this new chapter.”

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Bell thanked her supporters.

Thank you for your support and love over the years. I have enjoyed serving with each of you and will miss you immensely. My time at the House has been a highlight of my life and I will take all that I learned into the next phase of my journey. It is bitter sweet, but I’m excited about taking what I’ve learned and duplicating it across the south.

In 2009, Bell placed second in the special election for District 58 and thumped her remaining rival in the runoff and made history in the process.

Bell later won re-election to full terms in 2010, 2012 and 2014. In 2012, she defeated former state Rep. Ralph Long in a bitter race when the two Democrats were pitted against one another thanks to GOP-led redistricting. After her re-election in 2014, Bell was elected to Democratic leadership in the House as Chief Deputy Whip.

Bell embraced LGBT issues in the legislature, often standing front and center during contentious battles over anti-gay “religious freedom” and other legislation. In January, she confronted an anti-gay pastor who opened a Georgia House session. In 2014, Bell delivered an emotional and personal takedown of a “religious freedom” bill during a committee meeting.

“It's not about a cake. It's not about a wedding event. It's about us being able to live our lives fully. Not as second class citizens but being able to go through this world as people we were created to be,” Bell said. (Watch below)

In 2013, Bell was named a Harvey Milk Champion of Change and took part in a White House ceremony in which she encouraged LGBT teens to “walk through your fear.”

And throughout her tenure as a state lawmaker, she and partner Valerie Acree were a fixture at LGBT events, including the HRC Atlanta gala and Georgia Equality's Evening for Equality.And in an appearance in June 2010 before the Atlanta Executive Network, Bell delighted the LGBT crowd with her Gold Dome insights, humor and charm.

When her first legislative session opened in January, Bell says she was unapologetic about her identity, her partner and her progressive issues. Most often, Bell heads to the Gold Dome on her motorcycle.

“I arrive with my helmet on. I take it off at my desk. I put on my little lipstick. I talk about my partner. I talk about where I’ve worked and what I’ve done,” Bell says. “There are people who respect me for that. It’s my anticipation that that’s going to continue to happen.”

In 2010, the Stonewall Bar Association honored Bell with itsits Conspicuous Service to the Stonewall Community Award.

“The work that I am doing serves as an inspiration to a lot of people across this country and it really makes me think about the idea that it does get better,” Bell said of the award. “I can say for myself that my life has gotten better. I also know that unless we as adults stand up for what is right, stand up for full equality, that unfortunately for some people, it will not get better.”

UPDATE | Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, who often worked with Bell on LGBT issues in the legislature and supported her campaigns, called Bell a “champion.”
“We're all saddened to hear of Rep. Bell's decision to resign her seat,” Graham said in an email statement. “She has been a strong champion of the LGBT community while in office. Her efforts to fight against discriminatory legislation and work for great understanding and legal protections for the LGBT community have been unwavering. However, we would also like to congratulate her on her new position with Lambda Legal and look forward to continuing to work closely with her in this new role.”

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