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Georgia Is Currently Fighting Its Own Civil War

Atlanta, Georgia

Will the state embrace progress, or will a handful of Republicans drag it back to the past? Georgia Equality's Jeff Graham is fighting for the former.

Over the past couple of months, you may have read the headlines over the showdown between Delta Airlines and Republicans in Georgia's Senate. If it gave you a sense of deja vu, there's a good reason: It's a slightly different version of a formulaic battle that's played out here in the Peach State for the last five years.

This year, Delta took a stand and ended a small discount it gave to National Rifle Association members (a discount that Delta says a whopping 13 people took advantage of). GOP members of the state Senate declared war and voted to strike a $50 million tax break on jet fuel -- all while Atlanta tries to court Amazon's HQ2 and the associated 50,000 good-paying jobs.

Sounds vaguely familiar, right? Businesses in Georgia stand up for values that are tied into the communities in which we all live and work, and some GOP lawmakers lash out. It happened two years ago, when the business, sports, and entertainment industries spoke out in record opposition to a "license to discriminate" bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ people. Gov. Nathan Deal ultimately vetoed the bill. We saw a similar scuffle last year when lawmakers tried -- and failed -- to attach an anti-LGBTQ families amendment to a child welfare bill. This past legislative session, we successfully fought back against discriminatory legislation that would have allowed taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples looking to adopt and refuse to work with youth who identify as LGBTQ.

Often it can feel like Georgia is being yanked in two directions. One is the path forward, which includes policies that ensure our communities are vibrant, diverse, and welcoming places for people and families from all walks of life. Communities where businesses like Amazon want to put down roots and expand. Communities where people can go to work, rent an apartment, worship freely, or walk into any restaurant without fear of discrimination.

Then there's the slide backward -- to a state that forces businesses that would strengthen our communities and employ hundreds of thousands to go elsewhere, because extremist lawmakers punish them for doing the right thing. A state where lawmakers go out of their way to treat certain people like second-class citizens -- even though we already have some of the most antiquated civil rights laws in the nation. A state not positioned to remain competitive in a global economy.

Year after year, we see some politicians pull us toward the latter -- a backward slide where there are no winners, only losers. We know the many downsides of this course: The continued brinksmanship with hostile bills takes a toll of our state's brand image, not just imperiling our ability to attract job-creating giants like Amazon, but throwing into question the stability of our state's tourism industry -- which brings in about $50 billion annually and is responsible for about 400,000 jobs. And the lack of modern nondiscrimination protections takes a toll on those already living and working here. A 2017 report from the Williams Institute found that the stresses and stigmas of vulnerable legal standing impacts the productivity and well-being of LGBTQ Georgians in the workplace. According to that study, reducing those stresses by even just a quarter among Georgia's LGBTQ workforce would gain the state's economy upwards of $147 million in revenue.

But don't give up on Georgia -- for all the battles we continue fighting year after year here, I'm still confident that we're a state that will -- at the end of the day -- do the right thing and advance common-sense measures that provide protections for all. In fact, this year we had Republicans take the lead on introducing and passing out of committee an LGBTQ-inclusive hate-crimes bill.

At Georgia Equality, we've worked with policy makers, business leaders, advocates and activists, and incredibly brave LGBTQ families from across our state. We've supported people as they share deeply personal stories of discrimination with lawmakers in a bid to stop discriminatory bills from passing. We've listened to business leaders from all types of industries make the case that inclusive policies -- laws that respect and protect all Georgians -- hold the key to ensuring our state's future is as prosperous and vibrant as possible. We've partnered with child welfare organizations and with organizations representing people of color to not only fight back against discriminatory legislation, but work for laws that help all of our communities.

We see every day what the future Georgia could look like -- the Georgia where our communities are diverse, vibrant, and welcoming places. We see it in the faces of our next generation -- like Bennett, the young man from suburban Atlanta who started a letter-writing campaign to make sure his transgender classmates and other transgender youth across the state knew there was a network of love and support for them during times of harmful political rhetoric. We feel it with the palpable energy that rippled through the crowd that turned out near the state capitol to protest anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocate for policies that respect and protect everyone. We hear it when unexpected allies -- like Republicans ranging from Gov. Deal to former state Attorney General Mike Bowers -- speak out against anti-LGBTQ bills.

Last year, we made progress toward advancing a bill that would protect all Georgians from discrimination -- including both LGBTQ people and people of faith. We reject the false choice that so many of our opponents try to push: that somehow, for some reason, legal equality for LGBTQ people means less freedom to live out your faith freely. That simply is not true.

We believe in open and welcoming dialogue with all Georgians -- dialogue that is focused on what we have in common, as opposed to our differences. Dialogue focused on how common-sense policies can lift all of us up, strengthen our communities, and ensure Georgia can continue growing into one of the most competitive states in our 21st-century economy.

Our progress may be piecemeal right now, but with each passing legislative session we're making incredibly important inroads with the many diverse communities we need to ultimately create a state that is vibrant, diverse, and welcoming for all. Don't be distracted by this latest battle in Georgia that's garnering national headlines -- with perseverance, respect for others, and open communication, we're confident that we'll secure comprehensive nondiscrimination protections in Georgia in the years ahead. And that landmark victory will shatter, once and for all, the annual round of recriminations we've grown accustomed to in recent years.

JEFF GRAHAM is the executive director of Georgia Equality.

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