Speak­ing up to save a life

GA Voice - - Outspoken -


Joan Gar­ner was laid to rest last week­end. For those who some­how didn’t know of her, she was the first openly LGBT Ful­ton County Com­mis­sioner, in ad­di­tion to about 867 other ac­com­plish­ments in a va­ri­ety of ar­eas through­out her life.

Sit­ting in the bal­cony at Ebenezer Bap­tist Church dur­ing the ser­vice, I heard story af­ter story about Gar­ner and the ef­fect she had on peo­ple’s lives, and it made me re­al­ize I had a story to tell about her as well. Un­for­tu­nately, it has to do with what ul­ti­mately claimed her life.

It was June 26, 2015, the day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s his­toric de­ci­sion on mar­riage equal­ity. There was a rally that af­ter­noon at the Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights down­town, and as I was roam­ing from spot to spot tak­ing pic­tures of the speak­ers and the crowd, I no­ticed Gar­ner and her wife, Ful­ton County State Court Judge Jane Mor­ri­son, had shown up and were stand­ing be­hind me.

I also no­ticed Gar­ner was wear­ing a head­scarf and that one of the sher­iff’s deputies as­signed to Judge Mor­ri­son’s de­tail had a chair for Gar­ner to sit in. The cou­ple ended up tak­ing the stage and Gar­ner gave a rous­ing speech. Later, while edit­ing pho­tos from the rally, I no­ticed some peo­ple – in­clud­ing Ful­ton County Com­mis­sion Chair­man John Eaves – ap­pear­ing emo­tional or out­right cry­ing as Gar­ner spoke.

All of that led me to start ask­ing around to sources who would know – is some­thing go­ing on with Gar­ner’s health? Un­for­tu­nately, they told me what I didn’t want to hear – it was can­cer.

I reached out to Gar­ner’s of­fice to re­quest an in­ter­view, let­ting them know I wanted to ask about some ru­mors about her health, and that we would not run any­thing about it un­less she con­firmed and cared to talk about it.

By the next morn­ing, I was on the phone with Gar­ner, who, af­ter ex­chang­ing pleas­antries, said, “So Pa­trick, what do you know?”

I told her what led me to start ask­ing around, and that I was told she had breast can­cer, and re­minded her that we would not run any­thing un­less she wanted to talk about it.

And she did. She opened up about the di­ag­no­sis, her prog­no­sis, how it wasn’t keep­ing her from work and how, amaz­ingly, she went straight from chemo­ther­apy to the mar­riage equal­ity rally, say­ing, “This was just some­thing I could not pass up.”

Gar­ner didn’t have to open up to me about her di­ag­no­sis, but she did, which she ex­plained by point­ing out that she was known as “the health com­mis­sioner,” so this was an op­por­tu­nity to talk about what it’s like to go through such a trial.

While the can­cer would even­tu­ally claim Gar­ner’s life on April 18, I can’t help think­ing of the num­ber of peo­ple who went out and got breast can­cer screen­ings be­cause she opened up about her fight. She had to know that while she was sur­ren­der­ing some pri­vacy, she could end up sav­ing a life.

When we in the LGBT com­mu­nity lose one of our lead­ers, one of our el­ders, their sac­ri­fices need to be pointed out and cel­e­brated. Gar­ner set the bar in­cred­i­bly high, but in do­ing so she al­lowed those who came in her wake to reach just a lit­tle bit higher.

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