The battle for LGBT rights in Georgia is far from over

Georgia’s gay community celebrated its largest victory ever this summer, but the state remains without laws to specifically protect LGBT citizens against discrimination
LGBT Petrina Bloodworth Emma Foulkes
Petrina Bloodworth (left) and Emma Foulkes (right)

Photograph by Caroline Joe

On the last Friday of June, Emma Foulkes walked into the Fulton County Courthouse, filled out gender-neutral paperwork, and exchanged marriage vows with her longtime partner, Petrina Bloodworth. The photos from their wedding, the first to be performed nationwide after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed gay marriage, spread across the Internet along with the hashtag #LoveWins.

“It was absolutely incredible, that outpouring of support,” says Foulkes, 46, a financial planner. “Everyone partied real hard that weekend.”

That celebratory spirit returns on October 10 during the 45th annual Atlanta Pride, where Foulkes will be one of the event’s honorary grand marshals as president of the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Still, she and other activists are already preparing for the next chapter of their struggle for equal protection under the law.

Georgia remains one of 29 states without laws that specifically protect LGBT citizens against discrimination in the places where they live, the offices where they work, and the restaurants where they eat, says Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. And Georgia, the cradle of the civil rights movement, is one of only five states without a hate crimes law on its books—not just to protect victims who are singled out because of sexual orientation, but also those who are targeted because of race or gender.

“Gay couples in Georgia have few, if any, protections,” says Bryan Long, executive director of progressive advocacy group Better Georgia. “A gay couple who wed on a Saturday can be fired on Monday, or turned away on their honeymoon for being gay, and a gay couple’s landlord can terminate their lease legally.”

At the local level, however, the city of Atlanta’s LGBT-friendly laws have set the standard for the South. The Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy organization that grades the inclusiveness of municipal governments, gave Atlanta a perfect score of 100 in 2013 and 2014, citing its nondiscrimination laws that include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and its creation of LGBT community liaisons.

But goodwill for the gay community—at least as it’s reflected in local statutes—drops off just outside the Atlanta city limits. In DeKalb County, unincorporated areas and even otherwise gay-friendly cities like Decatur lack strong LGBT protections. Such policies are largely nonexistent in other Georgia cities like Augusta, Columbus, and Savannah, all of which scored below 25 on the HRC index.

Strong pro-LGBT policies at the municipal level go a long way toward fostering inclusiveness. But even the strongest city ordinances pale in comparison with the potential effects of statewide protections.

During the 2016 legislative session, Graham says, activists will push to extend workplace rights for LGBT state employees. Similar legislation—introduced by Karla Drenner, a gay Democratic state representative from Avondale Estates—has failed in past sessions. But bipartisan support is slowly growing; the measure now has 77 cosponsors, 17 of whom are Republicans.

Photograph by Darren Braun
Photograph by Darren Braun

Although the proposed law wouldn’t affect employees in the private sector, the measure would still be the first of its kind in the South, potentially laying the groundwork for more comprehensive legislation in subsequent years. Graham thinks the Supreme Court ruling may bode well for Drenner’s bill this year. Still, it’ll go nowhere without more Republican support.

“We’re setting the foundation right now,” Graham says. “Frankly, I’m not interested in putting a lot of effort behind legislation that doesn’t have bipartisan support at introduction. If a bill does not have Republican support, it’s not going to pass.”

Indeed, the 2016 presidential election means gay rights proponents are also bracing for a wave of anti-LGBT bills from conservative lawmakers, eager to drum up support from their base. For the third year in a row, state Senator Josh McKoon, a Republican from Columbus, plans to reintroduce his “religious freedom” bill—“RFRA,” as it’s commonly called—that he says would protect religious rights against heavy-handed government policies. The controversial measure, which critics claim gives business owners a “license to discriminate” against minorities, was tabled during a contentious round of hearings last March. Other anti-LGBT proposals, including one that would ban same-sex couples from adopting children, also could arise.

“It’s hard to see [new nondiscrimination laws] happening in the very near future,” says University of Georgia constitutional scholar Anthony Michael Kreis. “It’s hard to fight the battle you have to fight in terms of RFRA or other bills and then advocate for a [pro-LGBT] bill in another direction.”

Still, Allen Fox, a former policy analyst for Governor Nathan Deal who now directs an antidiscrimination business group called Competitive Georgia, says some Republicans are changing their stance on LGBT issues. One large reason for the change? $300 million. That’s how much Indiana could lose due to an economic boycott after its religious freedom bill passed last year.

“[RFRA] has given the perception the Republican party is more interested in discrimination than inclusion,” Fox says, pointing to Brookhaven state representative-elect Taylor Bennett, a Democrat who staged an upset in the Republican district in part due to a platform that strongly advocated for LGBT equality.

Graham remains hopeful that Georgia will someday pass comprehensive nondiscrimination laws—covering housing, public accommodation, and workplace rights—that include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Georgia Equality has begun initial conversations with other minority groups in hopes of getting widespread support for hate crime and nondiscrimination legislation.

Without stronger LGBT laws, Georgia residents like Daniel Ashley Pierce will continue to consider themselves second-class citizens. The 20-year-old Kennesaw native came out in 2014. When his parents decided to hold an intervention, they ended up verbally assaulting their son, throwing punches, and kicking him out of their house. He posted a clip of the altercation on YouTube, which has been viewed more than 8 million times. Friends and strangers alike donated $93,000 to a GoFundMe campaign benefiting him. Pierce is now a Kennesaw State University student, and while the jarring experience brought him closer to his boyfriend and helped him find a supportive community, he says, “We have a lot more work to do.”

By the numbers

Number of Georgia adults who identify as LGBT

Number of states, including Georgia, without a hate crimes law

Of LGBT students say they’ve been verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation

This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue under the headline “Pride and prejudice.”