Nonprofit Voice | Georgia Equality works to make laws reflect public attitudes

Seventy-four percent of Georgia voters support ensuring the fair and equal treatment of people under the law. So how is it that Georgia is one of only three states that does not prohibit private employer discrimination on the basis of factors including race or religion, and one of only five that allows racial and religious discrimination in businesses open to the public? A closer look at recent polls reveals that the exact same percentage of voters mistakenly believe that the Georgians who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—a population estimated at 385,200 people—are already protected under federal law. The truth: Neither state nor federal law provides any explicit protections for the LGBT community. Under the current federal administration, the need for state-level action couldn’t be more urgent.

For instance, last year the Obama administration made it clear that the Departments of Education and Justice would enforce an interpretation of the Title IX statute against sex discrimination that includes transgender students. Recently, the Trump administration has rescinded that guidance, leaving many students, parents, and administrators wondering what their legal obligation is. While we had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would issue a final ruling on this topic in 2017, they have announced that they are sending the case of Gavin Grimm back to the lower courts. There are still many legal cases working their way through the federal court system around the country, but knowing that 80 percent of transgender students in Georgia have reported being bullied or harassed, we must have clarity from the legislature that these students are deserving of the same level of respect and support as their peers.

In an effort to make sure that this happens, as well as to reduce the discrepancy between public attitudes and actual law, we here at Georgia Equality are focusing heavily on education in 2017, including a multi-layered approach aimed to inform both legislation and our allies. This includes continuing our Georgia Unites Against Discrimination campaign, which has successfully stopped hostile and discriminatory legislation from being passed in Georgia since its inception in 2015. Last year alone, we mobilized an unprecedented groundswell of grassroots opposition and defeated eight anti-LGBT bills which would have granted sweeping religious exemptions to justify discrimination. Momentum from the success of this campaign has led us to work more proactively to address LGBT discrimination. Earlier this year, we released a study called Liberty and Justice in Georgia, making the case that now is the time for Georgia to move to the correct side of history by passing a comprehensive and inclusive civil rights act. To see this come to fruition, we are using the report to build bipartisan support and make recommendations for Georgia policymakers and advocates.

LGBT non-discrimination isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business. Nationwide, LGBT adults have a combined buying power of $884 billion, and business leaders know that today’s consumers prefer to shop at businesses that support gay and transgender people. Top job creators prioritize communities that are welcoming to everyone—including their families, employees, and customers—because they know that fair and equal protections help them compete for top talent in an increasingly global marketplace. Imagine if all Georgia citizens knew they would be protected from discrimination based on race, disability, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or national origin, no matter where they choose to live, eat, and work. Not only would all Georgians feel valued and respected, Georgia as a state would be positioned more competitively, and wouldn’t risk losing an estimated $2 billion in economic activity should Georgians pass legislation that discriminates against LGBT into law.

While we remain true to our origins some 20 years later—Georgia Equality was established in 1995 to ensure that there would be a lobbyist working full time at the Georgia General Assembly to address legislation relevant to the state’s LGBT population—the organization has grown into a sophisticated structure of affiliated organizations, including a 501c3, 501c4 and PAC, which allows us to maximize support for our work. Besides analyzing policy, and working on dedicated legislative and candidate advocacy, we sponsor or participate in an average of 100 community events each year training people in effective advocacy skills and educating them in the issues. While we will go into any community where we are invited, we prioritize our work in Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Blue Ridge, Columbus, Macon, Savannah, and Valdosta, where there are organized community groups with which we can collaborate.

As a policy and advocacy organization, our success can impact tens of thousands of people—like the Fulton County Strategy to End AIDS, one of our successful campaigns supporting the 53,000 people in Georgia living with HIV/AIDS. Because action on non-discrimination civil rights now falls to our state legislators, the LGBT community needs local help more than ever. We encourage any organizations interested in advancing fairness, safety, and opportunity—including service providers and advocacy nonprofits—to contact us and learn more about our work. Through our seven-person staff, we can provide presentations on any number of topics, including working with transgender communities, creating policies for LGBT students, effectively engaging your constituencies in advocacy, conducting successful voter registration drives, and working with your board and senior staff to develop policies around lobbying.

Don’t let Georgia become the next North Carolina. Act now!

Jeff Graham is Executive Director of Georgia Equality which works to advance fairness, safety, and opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and their allies throughout the state.

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