GAY UN­DER THE GOLD DOME

State Reps, Karla Dren­ner, Keisha Waites talk pri­or­i­ties for new ses­sion.

GA Voice - - Front Page - By Ryan Watkins rwatkins@the­gavoice.com

As Ge­or­gia’s three openly les­bian law­mak­ers re­turn to work un­der the iconic Gold Dome as the 2013 leg­isla­tive ses­sion con­venes Jan. 14, they face the daunt­ing task of try­ing to find a voice in a pre­dom­i­nantly Repub­li­can-con­trolled Gen­eral As­sem­bly.

Repub­li­cans will en­ter the 2013 leg­isla­tive ses­sion with a near-con­sti­tu­tional ma­jor­ity af­ter a par­tic­u­larly good elec­tion year for con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers at the lo­cal level.

But de­spite the na­tional tide turn­ing to­ward LGBT equal­ity, Ge­or­gia’s gay law­mak­ers and ac­tivists have an up­hill bat­tle to con­tinue the ad­vance in an un­friendly leg­isla­tive at­mos­phere.

Ge­or­gia Equal­ity Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Jeff Gra­ham said work will con­tinue, de­spite the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity. Ge­or­gia, af­ter all, is not new to con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics.

“Cer­tainly, work­ing in a Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated leg­is­la­ture is a chal­lenge,” Gra­ham told GA Voice. “It’s a chal­lenge that we’ve been work­ing in for al­most a decade.”

Build­ing re­la­tion­ships with new law­mak­ers will be one of the big­gest chal­lenges of 2013.

“For the last four years, we’ve seen a soft­en­ing of some of the hard at­ti­tudes to­ward the LGBT com­mu­nity,” Gra­ham said. “We’ve been able to pass bills. HIV preven­tion, anti-bul­ly­ing, we’ve been able to con­sis­tently fight back against anti-gay and anti-trans­gen­der leg­is­la­tion that dif­fer­ent law­mak­ers have ex­pressed in­ter­est in try­ing to in­tro­duce.”

Progress, Gra­ham said, has been slow but no­tice­able.

“The first chal­lenge is work­ing within a bi­par­ti­san en­vi­ron­ment,” Gra­ham said of the new ses­sion. “That is per­haps our big­gest chal­lenge in Ge­or­gia. Any is­sue that is seen as need­ing bi­par­ti­san sup­port is not as apt at get­ting fo­cus or at­ten­tion. That cov­ers a wide va­ri­ety of is­sues, not just LGBT is­sues.”

Ge­or­gia Equal­ity will again uti­lize the lob­by­ing ser­vices of Cathy Woolard, the openly gay former At­lanta City Coun­cil pres­i­dent who was re­cently named in­terim di­rec­tor of AID At­lanta. Gra­ham is a reg­is­tered lob­by­ist for Ge­or­gia Equal­ity.

Pri­or­i­ties in the new year

For Rep. Karla Dren­ner (D-Avon­dale Es­tates), Ge­or­gia’s first openly gay state law­maker and one of three at the Gold Dome this year, the top pri­or­ity in 2013 will be in­tro­duc­ing and pass­ing an up­dated ver­sion of the Fair Em­ploy­ment Prac­tices Act to ban job bias against LGBT state em­ploy­ees.

A sim­i­lar bill, HB 630, was pro­posed last year but found it­self stalled in the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. The bill was spon­sored by Dren­ner and co-spon­sored by Reps. Mike Ja­cobs (R-At­lanta) and Wen­dell Wil­lard (R-Sandy Springs) among oth­ers. More than 50 of the bills cospon­sors will be re­turn­ing to work un­der the Gold Dome in 2013 and Dren­ner be­lieves it can pass.

The cur­rent law pro­hibits on-the-job dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race, color, re­li­gion, na­tional ori­gin, sex, hand­i­cap, or age for the state’s work­ers. Dren­ner and oth­ers in the Gen­eral As­sem­bly would like to add “sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion” and “gen­der iden­tity” as pro­tected sta­tuses.

“The last bill was bi­par­ti­san, over­whelm­ingly Demo­cratic, but there were a fair amount of Repub­li­cans who sup­ported it as well,” Dren­ner told GA Voice. “I be­lieve it will be that way this time. There will be some Repub­li­cans that will be will­ing to sign onto it, as well.”

Bul­ly­ing and hate crimes

Along with Dren­ner, Ge­or­gia’s openly gay state leg­is­la­tors also in­clude state Reps. Si­mone Bell and Keisha Waites, both At­lanta-area Democrats.

Waites has pre­filed two pieces of leg­is­la­tion with LGBT im­pact among her 18 pre­filed bills.

The first, HB12, would change how Ge­or­gia punishes those con­victed of com­mit­ting a “bias crime” or “hate crime” by in­sti­tut­ing harsher penal­ties. Both gen­der iden­tity and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion are in­cluded un­der the bill.

“The na­tional trend re­flects that our Repub­li­can friends must em­brace new poli­cies and ideals that are in­clu­sive,” Waites said. “How­ever, I am also learn­ing to cham­pion the small vic­to­ries. If pre-fil­ing this leg­is­la­tion keeps the con­ver­sa­tion on the ta­ble to build sup­port then I am happy to be a part of that ef­fort. His­tory has taught us that our si­lence has never pro­tected!”

Waites has also pre­filed HB 16, a bill that would re­quire pri­mary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions to cre­ate an­nual re­ports of in­ci­dents of bul­ly­ing.

“The re­cent head­lines re­flect that bul­ly­ing has long been a quiet mat­ter swept un­der the rug by ad­min­is­tra­tors,” Waites said. “One of the best ways to de­crease the in­ci­dents of bul­ly­ing is to take pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures, rec­og­niz­ing it when it oc­curs, and re­port­ing it when it hap­pens. The is­sue how­ever, is that a sig­nif­i­cant amount of schools do not have any anti-bul­ly­ing pro­grams.”

Gra­ham said that he be­lieves HB 16 has a good chance to move for­ward, while en­act­ing “hate crime” or “bias crime” leg­is­la­tion is not likely to hap­pen in the cur­rent cli­mate.

“We cer­tainly need that leg­is­la­tion,” Gra­ham said, while not­ing, “There’s not been sup­port from Repub­li­cans or the lead­er­ship, specif­i­cally lead­er­ship at the House level, to al­low it to be heard or moved for­ward.”

Even if only sym­bolic, Gra­ham said it was im­por­tant that the leg­is­la­tion is in­tro­duced each ses­sion.

Other is­sues of LGBT im­por­tance could also come to a vote in 2013. Gra­ham and Ge­or­gia Equal­ity will press for an ex­pan­sion of Med­i­caid that could help many of Ge­or­gia’s low-in­come LGBT peo­ple deal­ing with HIV/ AIDS find treat­ment op­tions.

Right now, Med­i­caid is gen­er­ally lim­ited to fam­i­lies with chil­dren or per­sons liv­ing with a dis­abil­ity. Such an ex­pan­sion could help per- ma­nently erad­i­cate Ge­or­gia’s wait­ing list for its AIDS Drug As­sis­tance Pro­gram (ADAP).

Play­ing de­fense

Dren­ner said de­spite na­tional gains in ap­proval and sup­port, LGBT is­sues are still not widely ac­cepted in Ge­or­gia’s leg­is­la­ture. And as more and more vic­to­ries are achieved na­tion­ally, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers in Ge­or­gia could re­act by pass­ing anti-gay leg­is­la­tion such as adop­tion or donor in­sem­i­na­tion bans.

Dren­ner said such bans would be a night­mare for Ge­or­gia’s LGBT con­stituents.

More than 50 new mem­bers of Ge­or­gia’s House will ar­rive un­der the Gold Dome in midJan­uary. Dren­ner said many of those law­mak­ers have un­proven records on LGBT is­sues.

“The new peo­ple over in the House, I’m not sure what kind of back­lash may oc­cur as a re­sult of the con­tin­ual saga of same-sex mar­riage across the coun­try. What­ever can hap­pen, dream your worst thought, it could be a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity,” Dren­ner said.

“At this point, we’re not really sure where they stand on par­tic­u­lar is­sues that could be harm­ful to the gay com­mu­nity,” she said. “We’ll watch and wait and see who does what.”

Both Dren­ner and Ge­or­gia Equal­ity’s Gra­ham said the best way to help fa­cil­i­tate mean­ing­ful change for Ge­or­gia’s LGBT con­stituents is to reach out to leg­is­la­tors, re­gard­less of party, and be­gin to build re­la­tion­ships with lo­cal law­mak­ers.

“I would love for peo­ple to be more [po­lit­i­cally] ac­tive,” Dren­ner said. “Come down. Lobby for a day. I can tell you my­self and the other two openly gay rep­re­sen­ta­tives, we rep­re­sent you. We are your voice. We are a re­minder that hav­ing a seat at the ta­ble is im­por­tant. Don’t aban­don us.

“Don’t think just be­cause we live in the South that things can’t be done. They can be but we need your help.”

will be the only openly gay state law­mak­ers when the new leg­isla­tive ses­sion con­venes this month. (File pho­tos)

Si­mone Bell

State Reps. Karla Dren­ner, Keisha Waites and

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