Meet the nonbinary Athens commissioner pushing ‘real transformation’

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Jesse Houle turned years of activism into a spot on the Athens-Clarke County Commission last year. Then they quickly got to work on a host of issues.

But Houle, 35, still struggles to get all their colleagues to use their personal pronouns. Houle identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them/their pronouns.

“You’re constantly toggling between asserting your own truth and working on the things that you believe in that you’re in the room for in the first place,” they told Project Q Atlanta. “Prioritizing how to do both at once is a constant challenge.”

Before joining the commission, Houle co-founded the progressive political advocacy group Athens for Everyone and was the operations manager for Nuci’s Space, a nonprofit focusing on suicide prevention and supporting local musicians.

Houle jumped into the District 6 race to help make a “real transformation” in Athens-Clarke County. They won their spot on the commission under sad circumstances. Commissioner Jerry NeSmith died in a fall at his home two days before facing Houle in the primary election.

NeSmith won posthumously, but the Georgia Supreme Court later declared Houle the winner for the term beginning January 2021, according to the Red & Black. Houle also won a special election to complete the final months of NeSmith’s term and took office in November wearing an “Abolish Prison” t-shirt.

Jesse Houle ran for the Athens-Clarke County Commission on a progressive political platform. (Photo via Houle for Athens)

‘Huge ally’ for fellow commissioner

Houle campaigned on a living wage for all workers, racial justice, affordable housing, participatory budgeting and a Green New Deal. They found a “huge ally, friend and comrade” in Mariah Parker, who became the commission’s first openly LGBTQ member in 2018.

Houle’s openness helped Parker navigate how upfront to be about her own identity, Parker said.

“Sometimes I’m a little nervous that people might know I’m bisexual,” she said. “Seeing [Houle’s] candor about being who they are throughout their campaign and after taking office has made me more confident in who I am, and knowing I have an ally has been great.”

Parker and Houle advocated strongly for the new broad, LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in Athens-Clarke County. In fact, the commission accomplished several of Houle’s top priorities since they took office.

“We got the living wage floor, we got fare-free transit, we just passed the nondiscrimination ordinance,” they said. “We’re actually tackling homelessness head on in a way that was un-prioritized or ignored for forever by the government.”

Houle wants to keep making strides on those issues and others during their first term, which runs through 2025.

“Black unemployment is three times general unemployment [in Athens-Clarke County],” Houle said. “There are things like that that really highlight the legacy of Jim Crow, racism, white supremacy.”

“That legacy exists, and it’s difficult to deal with, but acknowledging it is the first step,” they added. “Putting in legal policies to correct that imbalance needs to be a priority.”

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