Standing the Ropes at the Capitol

By Erica Meade

Photos: Erica Meade

On February 27th, hundreds of LGBT activists and supporters rallied at the Georgia State Capital to raise their voices against a handful of state senate bills that, if passed, will be harmful to LGBT youth, families and educators. Activists targeted Senate Bills (SBs) 180, 88, 365, 394, and 154, each of which would restrict the rights of LGBT youth and families and, in some instances, even make it illegal for librarians to lend out queer-related books and resources. A coalition that includes Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center were among those who stood with the activists in opposing these bills.

If passed, SB 180 (also known as the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RFRA) would prohibit the state of Georgia from interfering with individuals and businesses’ ability to discriminate against queer and trans people on religious grounds. Authored by Ryan Setzler of Acworth, the bill could limit queer access to housing or essential medical services.

Coalition leaders also emphasized the importance of defeating SB 88, which many speakers referred to as the “don’t say LGBT” bill. Although SB 88 has failed to make it out of committee due to a surprising lack of support from conservative lobbyists and political groups, it would require educators to report to a child’s parents when the child identifies as or shows support for the LGBT community in the classroom.

The remaining three bills, SB 154, 365 and 394, all relate to education censorship. Respectively, the impacts of these bills would criminalize loaning LGBT material to children, notify parents directly when children borrow queer literature and additionally conflate LGBT books to pornography.

Defeating this many bills calls for a mass mobilization and organization of working-class individuals and on the morning of February 27th, Atlantans did just that. Organizers from several Atlanta and Georgia-based LGBT organizations descended on Atlanta City Hall for a bright and early 8 AM start, promising a full day of activities for attendees.

A table of smiling faces greeted participants as they streamed past the security entrance of the Atlanta City Hall. After signing in, participants moved to round tables that occupied the ground floor, some sitting with friends, others sitting with strangers. After helping themselves to a classic southern breakfast of eggs with biscuits and gravy, they settled in for the day ahead.

Bentley Hudgins, the Georgia State director for HRC took the mic to address attendees before splitting them into groups where they could learn about the bills and the impact each would have on the LGBT community.

From there, the crowd marched onwards to the Georgia State Capitol, just a few blocks away. Across the street from the shining golden dome, the crowd gathered to rally before heading into the legislative building. Speakers, choirs, and even a drag performance by Chapel Beauty sparked energy in the crowd and stirred up the determination that would be needed to take action in the senate halls. Figures such as Kim Jackson, the only openly LGBT state Senator, and SnapCo. Executive Director Toni Michelle Williams addressed the bubbling and cheering crowd on the green grass of Liberty Plaza. The message of the speakers was simple: “When we fight, we win.”

The crowd intended to do just that. Following the drag performance, the flag holders and chanters moved into the congressional building. The main plan for the day was a process of lobbying referred to as “standing the ropes”. Outside the Senate floor, a stream of ropes lines the ivory white walls. Between sessions, legislators will come out to speak with constituents behind the ropes. It was here that those most impacted by the bills would make their case to the Senators as to why the legislation on the floor should not pass.

One of the legislators who briefly came out to speak with lobbyists was Jason Esteves, the state Senator of Georgia District 6, which covers, among other areas Grove Park, Vinings and Buckhead. Esteves, who committed to voting against SB 180, also commented on SB 88, claiming it “particularly puts a burden on teachers that [they] don’t deserve.” While SB 88 is not expected to pass this legislative session, there is no guarantee Republicans will not propose a similar bill in future legislative sessions.

As legislators spoke out about the pressing anti-queer tide brewing on the Georgia Senate floor, activists from various organizations spoke among themselves regarding the reasons they fight for LGBT rights, both inside and outside the golden dome. Toni Michelle Williams, moved quickly between the event coordinators, making sure to stop with various youth activists to discuss the numerous obstacles the queer community faces. Williams’ organization, SnapCo. (Solutions Not Punishments Collaborative) stresses the need to find solutions to crime that don’t involve prisons and police. With bills on the floor that could criminalize actions by librarians, Williams made sure to be anything but silent in the State Capital.

According to Williams, one of the most important aspects of her work is “creating and building alternatives to safety that exist outside of policing.” Given the severity of bills on the Senate floor, Williams told her comrades that now is the time to “organize people around those solutions and mobilize a movement” in order to ensure these harmful bills don’t pass.

With the eyes of Confederate generals peering down on the proudly flamboyant crowd, the legislative session started to wind down for the day. While the time to fight in the Capital was coming to a close, the time to start fighting in the streets was just beginning. Waving queer banners against a backdrop of Confederate flags, rally attendees from every walk of life marched out of The Capital just as they had marched in that morning. Despite the tragedy of the Senate bills, crowd members held their heads high knowing they would be back. They intended to fight, and more importantly they intended to win.

Erica Meade is an Atlanta journalist who specializes in writing on politics, culture, and labor. She started her career writing for People’s World and now freelances for various Atlanta-based publications. In addition to writing, Erica is a member of the Union of Southern Service Workers, where she organizes with service industry workers to win respect, dignity, and fair pay in the workplace. 

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