LGBT ac­tivist Cathy Woolard

GA Voice - - Contents - by Pa­trick Saun­ders, psaun­ders@the­

Pity the poor per­son who un­der­es­ti­mates Cathy Woolard due to her diminu­tive stature. Her blood­line cour­ses with po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment and acts of ser­vice, and she has more than con­tin­ued that legacy.

She’s “The Opener,” the first openly gay elected of­fi­cial in Ge­or­gia his­tory, who paved the way for peo­ple in­clud­ing Karla Dren­ner, Si­mone Bell and Alex Wan to steam­roll through the laven­der ceil­ing and make their voices heard through­out the state Capi­tol and At­lanta City Coun­cil. The for­mer At­lanta City Coun­cilmem­ber made his­tory in 1997 when she be­gan her first term on the At­lanta coun­cil, and then be­came the first woman to serve as pres­i­dent of the coun­cil in 2002. She also was the first openly gay per­son in Ge­or­gia to run for Congress in 2004, but lost to Cyn­thia McKin­ney.

She’s also “The Closer,” the go-to per­son can­di­dates bring in to do money pitches at their events, mix­ing jokes about lock­ing the doors with se­ri­ous re­marks that res­onate, caus­ing wal­lets to open and races to stay alive. These days you’ll find her pas­sion­ately lob­by­ing for Ge­or­gia Equal­ity and Planned Par­ent­hood.

Woolard, 56, in­vited GA Voice into the Glen­wood Park home she shares with her part­ner of 26 years, Karen Geney, to talk com­ing out in the South, the court case that launched her ca­reer in ac­tivism, the is­sue the LGBT com­mu­nity isn’t talk­ing about and her po­lit­i­cal fu­ture.

GAVO: At what point in your life did you start form­ing an in­ter­est in pol­i­tics?


From a pretty young age. On my dad’s side of the fam­ily, my grand­fa­ther was the mayor of Sylvester, Ga., and my great­grand­mother was ap­pointed by Teddy Roo­sevelt to be post­mistress in Sylvester. And my dad was in the Air Force. So pub­lic af­fairs al­ways mat­tered. So I was in­ter­ested in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics prob­a­bly first and then got in­volved in gay stuff out of self-in­ter­est later.

When did you come out?

I started com­ing out in high school, but yI didn’t fully come out un­til col­lege. I got re­ally in­volved af­ter the Hard­wick de­ci­sion in 1986 [which out­lawed same-sex sex­ual ac­tiv­ity in Ge­or­gia] and got in­volved in the March on Wash­ing­ton and a lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion here and be­came a del­e­gate to the march com­mit­tee. That was the spring­board for me get­ting ac­tive. And I came out to my par­ents be­cause I ywas go­ing to be in­ter­viewed on TV and needed yto make that not be a sur­prise [laughs]. So who knows when I would have come out had I not had that im­per­a­tive? w

What about your par­ents?

They weren’t too ex­cited about it. My dad has be­come such a gay rights ad­vo­cate I have to like, keep him in the bot­tle, like “Stop, Dad.” But they’re southern, it’s just not talked about and they were sort of hop­ing that I wasn’t go­ing to talk about it. Ap­par­ently they knew. I of course strug­gled with it so I was like, “If you’d known all of these years could you have not told me?” [laughs]. But all’s good.

So Hard­wick was where you veered off the path from in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics to LGBT is­sues?

Ab­so­lutely. When it was de­cided, I was just shocked. I thought the Supreme Court would have made a bet­ter de­ci­sion than that, and I had a bunch of friends who weren’t po­lit­i­cally in­volved and I kind of bitched about it quite a bit, un­til one of them fi­nally said, “Well why don’t you just do some­thing about it?” And, it was kind of like one of those buck­ets of wa­ter and I was like, “Yeah, maybe I should.” I got in­volved and that kind of fed the beast, so I stayed in­volved.

What’s the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween the way that straight politi­cians used to speak to you about LGBT is­sues then, and how they talk to you about them now?

It’s 100 per­cent dif­fer­ent. Most [leg­isla­tive] of­fices had never had a meet­ing with anybody gay. They didn’t know who to as­sign us to. Also we didn’t have the level of po­lit­i­cal ger­ry­man­der­ing that we cur­rently have. There were ac­tu­ally mod­er­ates in both par- ties, so you could change some­one’s opin­ion over time.

Now, there’s usu­ally a per­son in ev­ery leg­isla­tive of­fice that han­dles LGBT is­sues whether they’re for it or against it. But at least ev­ery sin­gle of­fice has an opin­ion. We were still try­ing to dis­cern what that opin­ion was at that point in time. Now, it’s very par­ti­san and it’s very clear about where those di­vid­ing lines are.

An­other thing I would say about the dif­fer­ence in my con­ver­sa­tions be­tween then and now is that many, many leg­is­la­tors have gay rel­a­tives that are out and that makes the con­ver­sa­tion re­ally dif­fer­ent, it be­comes very per­sonal. Some­times they still won’t sup­port the is­sue for a va­ri­ety of po­lit­i­cal rea­sons but I’ve had more than a hand­ful of leg­is­la­tors out their chil­dren or nieces or neph­ews or broth­ers to me in the course of a con­ver­sa­tion, so it be­comes a re­ally dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tion at that point. And we’ve been hav­ing a lot of those kinds of con­ver­sa­tions.

So in those days, not only were they speak­ing face-to-face with some­one that’s a gay lob­by­ist or ac­tivist, but also speak­ing to the first gay per­son that they’ve ever know­ingly spo­ken to.

Yeah, you know mostly peo­ple were pretty de­cent about it. How­ell Heflin, who was the se­na­tor from Alabama for a hun­dred years, I met with him one time up in D.C. His aide was an older African-Amer­i­can guy who did a lot of civil rights li­ai­son stuff. We ended up talk­ing about women’s bas­ket­ball. He was into that, and I guess he thought that was where the mother load of les­bians were. But that was the thread. He was very cor­dial and I found my­self in one of those of­fices where I would not have thought I would have as much fun as I did.

This last leg­isla­tive ses­sion was pretty in­tense with the re­li­gious free­dom bills fly­ing around. You were down there at the Capi­tol lob­by­ing for Ge­or­gia Equal­ity. What were your im­pres­sions?

The pat­tern that has been emerg­ing over the years is that there’s a good bit of re­straint in the be­gin­ning of the ses­sion as they try to pass the bud­get and some of the crit­i­cal things in the gover­nor’s pack­age and there tends to come a day some­time in Fe­bru­ary usu­ally where all hell breaks loose and all the so­cial is­sues come out. And that’s what hap­pened that par­tic­u­lar week, they all came out on a Wed­nes­day with hear­ings sched­uled on a Thurs­day and there was very lit­tle no­tice.

So we mo­bi­lized peo­ple, peo­ple took hold of that, got in­volved and got things go­ing and it was great hav­ing peo­ple show up be­cause about the only way you can stop things in this leg­is­la­ture is mak­ing things pub­lic.

Ev­ery­one’s talk­ing about mar­riage and re­li­gious free­dom and em­ploy­ment pro­tec­tion. What’s the one is­sue that the LGBT com­mu­nity should be pay­ing more at­ten­tion to but isn’t?

I think HIV is some­thing our com­mu­nity needs to talk about. We’re num­ber one in new trans­mis­sions in the coun­try here in At­lanta and the statis­tics around HIV and sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases in metro At­lanta are off the charts. As a com­mu­nity we’re kind of act­ing like we’re done, like we have a han­dle on it and we don’t. New trans­mis­sions, es­pe­cially among young black men, are re­ally, re­ally scary.

When I was get­ting in­volved in the late 80s, a whole co­hort of young men died. My peer group of men dis­ap­peared in about two years’ time. The con­tri­bu­tions they made get­ting our com­mu­nity ready to do the in­cred­i­ble things we’ve been do­ing, these guys were on the fore­front of be­ing out when no­body was. And I’d hate to see us re­peat that, be­cause we don’t have to. It’s not easy to talk about those things, es­pe­cially if you’re the LGBT com­mu­nity and ev­ery­body’s all freaked out about us any­way, but man, in Ge­or­gia we are in the worst of the worst.

So what’s next? Any thoughts on run­ning for of­fice again?

Yeah I think about it a lot, ev­ery time there’s an elec­tion. So I’ll keep think­ing about it. I’m just sort of bid­ing my time. That’s all I can say about it right now.

Cathy Woolard says the way straight politi­cians talk about LGBT is­sues has changed ‘100 per­cent’ in the past sev­eral years. (Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

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