Top Georgia Democrat urges LGBTs to take action

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The top Democrat in the Georgia House urged LGBTQ activists in her party to educate lawmakers about transgender issues and brace themselves for possible legislation targeting bathrooms and adoptions.

Rep. Stacey Abrams, the Minority Leader in the state House, offered her comments during a meeting Saturday with the LGBTQ Caucus of the Georgia Democratic Party. She spoke about the 2017 legislative session, which opened earlier this month, warned of the possibility of anti-LGBTQ bills and discussed why the state party backed one gay candidate but not another in elections last November.

“There are going to be folks who see what happened in North Carolina as a challenge and not as a rebuke,” Abrams told the crowd of about 75 gathered at the Democratic Party offices near downtown.

While the top three Republicans in the state – Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston – have all signaled they don’t want another fight over “religious freedom” legislation, bills targeting transgender people – like House Bill 2 in North Carolina – might see some traction.

Abrams said that while many Democrats support LGBTQ issues, they often lack information about what it means to be transgender and how to support transgender people.

“I will say this, one of the real opportunities for this [LGBTQ] Caucus is to make sure you are educating your legislators and your allies on transgender issues,” Abrams said. “There are a lot of allies who stand with you because that’s what they think they should do but you do not want them explaining this issue for you. It is worse than the bad things people say.”

“So take the time to educate us. I luckily have been in positions where I can ask for help. But for a lot of my colleagues, I am not the person you want explaining this for you. So make sure you’re having this conversation, because there is a lot of misinformation and there is a lot of apprehension. The instinct is to be supportive but it’s not an instinct that’s driven by information and that is always dangerous,” Abrams added.

Abrams shared that adoption may also be a top target for anti-LGBTQ legislators. Sen. David Shafer, the president pro tem of the Senate, has been discussing possible legislation, she said.

“David was saying that there might need to be legislation that would allow private adoptions to be restricted. That is wrong. And that needs to be paid very close attention to,” Abrams said.

Abrams pointed to a March decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that reversed an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that refused to recognize the adoption of a lesbian couple completed in Georgia.

“Those have been state based and not federal, and because of that there are no protections in Georgia right now. So that would be the major issue I would pay attention to,” Abrams said.

No bills have been introduced in the Georgia General Assembly. But given Shafer's leadership position, if he backs a bill concerning private adoptions, it's likely to receive wide support from Republican colleagues.

In December, Abrams called for the passage of a statewide civil rights bill that includes LGBTQ protections. Progressive activists and faith leaders repeated that call last week.

During the LGBTQ Caucus meeting, Abrams also spoke candidly about the state party's decision to back Rep. Sam Park’s campaign for the House and not Bob Gibeling, who ran his second unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature.

“When Sam Park decided to run, I did not give to him, he was not on the list, he was not a target race for us. I said to Sam, and I said the same thing to Bob, show me your fundraising, show me your numbers, show me all the things that say if invest I can win,” Abrams said. “If my money can’t help you with your need, I cannot spend it in your district.” 

While she praised Gibeling for doing “amazing work,” and being “a perfect example of a great Democrat,” she considers the District 54 seat he ran for too expensive to win.

“Bob unfortunately lives in Buckhead. There are 12 Democrats in Buckhead, and six of you are in here. But Bob does an extraordinary job of running for that office,” Abrams said as she joked with the crowd.

Park, on the other hand, lives in Gwinnett County, which is rapidly changing and notably turned Democratic in November, voting for Hillary Clinton and electing Park as the first gay man and first Korean-American person to be elected to the Georgia House.

“Sam lived in a part of Gwinnett that was changing, and when he brought me those numbers, and he was able to show it, we were then able to justify making an investment,” Abrams said.

Several people in the crowd asked her about what they can do, and Abrams encouraged them to make calls and show up at the offices of elected officials if they want to become more influential.

“LGBTQ Caucus, you all have a membership. If you all show up at [U.S. Senator] Johnny Isakson’s office he will be terrified because this many have never shown up down there ever. And I am not saying that he is going to be terrified out of homophobia, he is going to be terrified out of presence,” Abrams said.

“We are 15-year-old girls,” Abrams said to laughs. “We respond to money, peer pressure, and attention. If you want us to do anything those are the three levers.”

Georgia Equality has scheduled two Citizen Advocacy Training sessions – one on Jan. 28 focuses on LGBTQ issues, while a Feb. 15 training is on HIV issues. On Feb. 16, AIDS Watch Georgia hosts HIV Lobby Day at the State Capitol on Feb. 16.

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