“Especially when it comes to the legislature, it is going to be a purple legislature for the foreseeable future,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “That requires building relationships with Republicans.”
Graham’s comments came Friday during Q Conversations, Project Q’s live virtual Q&A series. The discussions with a wide array of newsmakers take place most Fridays at lunchtime, hosted by Project Q Atlanta founder Matt Hennie.
The episode also included Fred Smith, an associate professor at Emory University School of Law, and state Sen.-elect Kim Jackson, a Black lesbian priest who became the first LGBTQ person ever elected to the Georgia Senate. When the legislature reconvenes at the Gold Dome, Jackson joins the five existing representatives in the state House and state Rep.-elect Marvin Lim, who won his primary and did not face a challenger on Election Day.
“The [state] House has been kind of a stopgap measure to keep bad things from coming forward,” Graham said of the growing contingent of LGBTQ lawmakers. “I do hope that in 2021 the narrative can shift, and we can actually see some good legislation that will offer protections to LGBTQ Georgians and greater support for people living with HIV and AIDS here in Georgia.”
The state Senate is often a driving force in anti-LGBTQ legislation, Graham said, and working across the aisle will be critical. Jackson agreed that inroads exist for the right lawmaker, and her experiences uniquely prepared her for the task.
“I, like most black people in the South, have had to work with white people for my entire life, so I feel very well equipped to do that work,” Jackson said with a big smile (watch below or here).
She added that, as an Episcopal priest, her church is made up of predominantly white people with an average age of 65, not unlike the state Senate.
“I have been ministering to and with people who don’t look like me, and often who don’t love like me,” she said. “But we have found ways to be in relationship with one another, and ways to find, find commonality.”
Signs of change
Jackson will represent District 41, a diverse area that includes portions of DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. She said her election signals a new era that’s rich with opportunity to eventually change the South’s red-state reputation.
“The fact that they elected an out queer Black woman is a testament to not just the change in Georgia, but a testament to a move throughout the South and across the nation to really welcome and accept LGBTQ folks as leaders, as people who should and deserve to have a seat of power at the table,” she said.
Smith, who is also on the board of Lambda Legal and supported several Democratic campaigns, said that Georgia’s delegation of seven LGBTQ lawmakers — all in metro Atlanta — stands out for being ahead of the curve in more ways than one.
“There’s the intersectional component,” he said. “Of the seven, five are people of color. When it comes to questions like criminal justice, … and even when it comes to things like affordable housing, that there’s a way in which it will just be helpful and important for that perspective to be there.”
Smith said that representation in the legislature matters most for its ability to humanize issues.
“It gets harder to engage in negative legislation against a group,” he said. “When you have to work with someone, when you meet them, and you have to look them in the eye and view them as a human being.”
Jackson said that attracting even more candidates of color is a priority for her in the long term.
“It’s hard, it’s challenging when you’re the only woman in the room, when you’re a Black person in the room or the only queer person in the room,” she said. “So I’m deeply committed to helping. I have told some friends, ‘I will be the first one to write a check for you, to support you in a race.’ That is a major part of this work.”
On their shoulders
Jackson credited other lesbian state representatives for laying the groundwork and making her win possible. State Rep. Karla Drenner was the first LGBTQ person elected to the state legislature in 2000. Former state Rep. Simone Bell became not only Georgia’s but the nation’s first Black LGBTQ lawmaker in 2009. Former state Rep. Keisha Waites was elected in 2012.
“I want to give thanks to them, to Simone, to Karla, to so many, to Keisha,” she said. “This is just an exciting time.”
Smith and Graham echoed those sentiments and called for others to follow Jackson and Lim into office.
“It’s not easy to run for office,” Smith said. “The folks who have taken that step and done that work and put themselves through the wringer in that way… To say I’m proud is an understatement. I’m in awe, and I’m deeply appreciative of their work.”
The panel also discussed specific goals of the 2021 legislative session, a lack of financial support for Black candidates by white gay and lesbian voters, and metronormativity among Atlanta-area voters. They also hammered home the urgency of Georgia’s Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs.
Looking forward, they laid out a case for what appears to be new LGBTQ-friendly enclaves in Georgia. Smith said the future is bright for a blue Georgia — one day.
“What’s exciting is I don’t think we’re going to go back,” he said. “What has happened when we’re saying metro Atlanta now, we’re not just talking about Fulton and DeKalb and Clayton. We’re also talking about Rockdale and Newton and obviously Gwinnett and Cobb, and Henry and Douglas…”
“We’re in a new era, and I already like it,” he added.