Warnock (photo), senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, is the leading Democrat in a congested special election for Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat. It’s one of two U.S. Senate races in Georgia on the November ballot. Jon Ossoff faces U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the other contest.
Warnock increased his visibility with LGBTQ voters by nabbing an endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign in September and taking part in a virtual meet-and-greet with LGBTQ voters earlier this month in which he pledged to fight “mealy-mouthed” foes of LGBTQ equality.
In a wide-ranging interview with Project Q Atlanta conducted by email, Warnock addressed a number of LGBTQ issues, including why religious freedom “should never be used as an excuse to discriminate.”
You took an HIV test during a Sunday service at Ebenezer in 2010. Why did you feel moved to do so?
One of the reasons I thought it was important for a pastor and a church to do this work was because of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. I felt then and I still feel that I am committed to using my bully pulpit to address the inequity and disparities in health care and to address the stigma that keeps communities from dealing with HIV/AIDS in a helpful and honest way.
We need to follow science and demand that Washington leaders take this epidemic seriously, ensure protections and push for access to affordable, life-saving medications, instead of allowing Big Pharma to profit off of a health care crisis.
What other work have you done to fight HIV in Georgia? How would you address the HIV epidemic in the Senate?
I have been an advocate of community health care and community-led health care programs. As a freshman at Morehouse College, I helped lead a teen peer health program to connect young people who are often harder to reach when it comes to sharing important information.
As Georgia ranks third in the United States for HIV cases, we all share a responsibility in fighting this epidemic, and in the U.S. Senate, I would work to make prescription drugs, including PrEP, accessible and affordable and support increased funding for HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and research.
You presided over the memorial service for Fulton County commissioner and LGBTQ activist Joan Garner in 2017. What do you remember most about her?
I was honored to preside over the service of someone like Joan Garner and to know her during her advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. She was a public servant in the true meaning of the word. She was a champion for equality, and I hope to bring that same spirit of fighting for the people every day into my work.
‘Sen. Loeffler is driving people apart’
Why do you support the Equality Act, and why is it important for you to fight for it in the Senate?
We all deserve the right to live with dignity, to work hard, live well and care for ourselves and our families. It is unacceptable that for too many of our brothers and sisters – especially those who identify as LGBTQ+ – these basic rights are out of reach, and instead they face threats of harassment and discrimination.
Now more than ever, we need a federal law that ensures equal protections. That is the goal of the Equality Act that I support and will work to become law if elected to the U.S. Senate.
Why did you condemn the bill Sen. Loeffler introduced that would make it a violation of federal law for transgender girls to compete in women’s sports in schools?
As a pastor and the servant leader of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, I continue the tradition of the giants who came before me and who preached that no one is free until we are all free. There is no such thing as equality for some. Instead of bringing people together, Sen. Loeffler is driving people apart and worse, it is for her own political gain. Her rhetoric has no place in Georgia or in the U.S. Senate.
Why is it important to get pro-LGBTQ equality judges on the Supreme Court? Are you concerned the changing makeup of the court threatens marriage equality or the Bostock decision?
I believe that we all deserve equal protection under the law. One of the brightest moments of 2020 has been the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which expanded protections for LGBTQ+ employees against discrimination.
But there are still those on the Supreme Court who want to undermine the historic ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Their latest attack makes it clear that, just like health care coverage and protections for pre-existing conditions, equal rights for marginalized communities are on the ballot in November.
I firmly believe that freedom for one shouldn’t be a threat to another, and religious freedom should never be used as an excuse to discriminate. We must stand up for the rights and protections of everyone in Georgia and across the country, including the LGBTQ+ community.
Trans women ‘deserve equal justice’
The Trump Administration enacted rule changes allowing healthcare providers and insurance companies to turn away transgender patients. What will you do as a senator to help protect transgender – and other LGBTQ – people in healthcare?
We are at an inflection point in our nation, but I believe, together, we can fulfill MLK’s dream for a beloved community. I believe there is a broad, multiracial coalition across the country rising up and saying that we will not stand for these attacks on Americans, including the LGBTQ+ community.
We need to pass the Equality Act and prevent legalized loopholes for insurance companies to discriminate against any member of the LGBTQ+ community. All of us deserve the right to lead lives of equal dignity and access to healthcare for ourselves and our families without fear of harassment and discrimination.
However, non-discrimination statues in most states, including Georgia, do not include sexual orientation and gender identities as protected characteristics, leaving the health care of nearly half of all LGBTQ people on the line.
The ongoing racial justice movement is sometimes criticized for ignoring the lives of black transgender women. What would you do as a senator to make sure these LGBTQ people feel valued and included?
Transgender women of color deserve equal justice under the law and federal protections for their health and livelihoods. That principle is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even when it comes to police violence, members of the LGBTQ community experience double or triple jeopardy. When we lift up the most marginalized members of the human family, that’s a way of talking about our universal kinship. It’s a way of centering people who are marginalized so that we can have a more inclusive understanding of our humanity.
That principle must extend to members of the trans community who are not only marginalized from mainstream America, but marginalized in the Black community.
To address the rising tide of violence against trans and non-binary people, as the next U.S. Senator from Georgia I will support a comprehensive federal response to address anti-transgender violence and legislation to provide trans women with the resources they need to live with dignity.
‘What affects one of us, affects us all’
The June primaries showed voting access issues in some Georgia counties. There are also continuing complaints of voter suppression and problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Do you have concerns about people being able to vote in the election?
When the GOP puts its thumb on the scale, their ultimate goal is to make people feel like their ballots won’t matter. But Georgia, in the spirit of John Lewis, will never give in to that effort to discourage us.
Despite their efforts to suppress the vote, we saw record turnout in the June 9 primary. On the Democratic side, almost 1.3 million Georgians cast ballots, more than the high-water mark of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. And since Stacey Abrams came within 55,000 votes of winning, Georgia has registered 700,000 new voters, half of whom are people of color and young people under 30. Now, an all-time high of 7.4 million Georgians are registered to vote.
How strong is your connection to LGBTQ people in Atlanta? Have you marched in the Atlanta Pride parade?
I have been a strong ally of the LGBTQ community in Atlanta both inside and outside of my church. When President Obama came out in support for marriage equality in 2012, I celebrated from the pulpit because as a pro-LGBTQ+ pastor I believe supporting all people, and especially marginalized communities, is a responsibility of all people and especially those in the church.
I’ve also worked to help reduce the stigma around things such as the HIV epidemic through my work and called on my fellow faith leaders to affirm the humanity and equality of people that identify as LGBTQ+ because what affects one of us, affects us all. How we treat the marginalized is the acid test of our faith.
Where does your commitment to LGBTQ Georgians come from?
As a civil rights advocate, I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as “equal rights for some.” That is a contradiction in terms. Either you believe in equal protection under the law or you don’t. And for me, the commitment to that as a citizen is sacred and inviolable.
Equality under the law is the thing that causes our whole system to cohere. Look at our motto, “E Pluribus Unum.” Out of many, we are one. That is the root of my allyship with the LGBTQ community.
This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.