On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee moved religious liberty legislation forward that alarms LGBT Georgians for its potential to embolden anti-gay animus. I held hope that reasonable minds would block litigious, bad faith actors from abusing religious liberty to undermine civil rights. In a prior hearing, it looked as if nondiscrimination principles might prevail. Alas, it was a flash in the pan.
The new language was not publicly released in advance of Monday’s hearing. There was no amendment to exempt civil rights laws from religious objections. There was no testimony. There was no debate. The bill was hurried through while a senator, who may well have brought perspective to the legislation, was in the restroom. Once again, a legislative body ran roughshod over Georgia’s minority communities.
There was no room at the table for us.
For LGBT Southerners, this is just another day in the life of a second-class citizen. Like all LGBT Georgians, my mere existence is a legally permissible ground for various forms of discrimination. That is a heavy burden I carry every day, made easier only by the liberation of my education and having a platform to speak to my fellow Georgians. Not all are so fortunate.
There are no state laws protecting LGBT state employees from wrongful termination or hostile work environments. Georgia is one of only five states that fail to protect any citizens from invidious discrimination in public accommodations. Same-sex couples cannot marry the person they love. And even if the Supreme Court strikes down Georgia’s marriage laws, newlyweds can return from their honeymoon to a pink slip. Private workplace discrimination is completely legal in Georgia, despite overwhelming support from Georgians to ban it. It is undeniable— the place I love and call home does not love me back.
At the same time, our children suffer. Over 100 religious schools in Georgia ban openly gay students, yet hold out their hands for government collected scholarship funds. LGBT homelessness among young Georgians shunned by their own families is appallingly high. Being an LGBT child is hard enough, always questioning your own self-worth. It is doubly hard for children who are torn away from their communities because of irrational prejudice, sometimes subsidized by the state. Stigmatization takes a grave toll on their mental health, far too often leading to drug abuse, addiction, depression, and suicide. Who is looking out for our kids? Who in power is pushing through legislation with fierce urgency to guarantee they will have an opportunity to achieve success?
I can no longer bear being lectured that there is no discrimination in Georgia. Let us remember invidious discrimination against my community is legal in this state. There are, consequently, no statistics to turn over to prove its existence. I have seen people ejected from businesses because they’re gay. LGBT persons are often victims of insults in the public square. These moments are harrowing experiences that never grow easier no matter how many times you have endured them or how old you are. Hopelessness can take root if you do not quickly fight back tears, forgive, and press on for a better day. The daily struggles of my friends and neighbors are erased from the debate under the Gold Dome. They deserve better. Georgia deserves better.
More than just a fear of losing a job or being denied service, many LGBT Georgians live in constant fear for their very lives. The LGBT community has taken steps to fight back, securing local anti-discrimination laws in discrete municipalities. These are the very protections the organizational backers of pending religious liberty legislation oppose in the false name of religious free exercise. These modest laws are why we are stuck debating dramatized fears of majority repression.
As the LGBT community works toward securing statewide protections, it should not be surprising that any law that could undermine existing protections would generate passionate resistance. Senator Cowsert’s instinct to insulate civil rights laws and ordinances from religious objections was right. Instead of meaningful protections, we were given a mirage of compromise in the form of unenforceable legislative findings. The LGBT community asked for a half piece of bread. They barely threw us crumbs.
I sincerely appreciate that many legislators have said they harbor no intent to encourage discrimination. But, these are promises our legislators are ill positioned to keep. The interpretation of any religious liberty law would lie with the courts. While I have great faith in our judges, LGBT Southerners are understandably skeptical. We cannot take for granted that our state courts will always mete out justice in our favor. Look to the Alabama Supreme Court, which yesterday took extraordinary measures to target our constitutional rights and relegate us to a position of social inferiority. I ask that Georgia’s elected officials examine their hearts and reflect on how they might feel if they were routinely subjected to humiliation and vilification. For many LGBT Georgians, the scars of mistreatment animate their visceral fears. Verbal promises will not overcome the hard lessons of repeated abuse.
Owning uneasy truths is our Southern dilemma. We are now at a point of great promise and great danger. We can choose to pursue comprehensive solutions to pressing civil rights issues or we can abandon the promise and browbeat one another. It is time that we frankly admit to our social ills and stop fueling mistrust and division. History will judge us. I pray it does so favorably.