Posted on 03 April 2014.
By D. David Kinney
Atlanta is a progressive splash of blue treading water in a blustery sea of red. Keeping Atlanta on a Democratic bearing has been Mayor Kasim Reed since he was first inaugurated in 2010. However, Mayor Reed isn’t a member of the LGBT community. He doesn’t necessarily know what our community needs or how laws are uniquely affecting our population. So Reed created a new LGBT advisor position to help him navigate the legal landscape with respect to gay issues.
“Last Autumn the mayor created the advisor position and asked me if I would serve. I was very honored and, of course, accepted,” Robin Joy Shahar told FENUXE Magazine during a recent interview. Shahar is the Mayor’s Advisor on LGBT Issues and Chief Counsel at the City of Atlanta Department of Law. She began her career with the City of Atlanta in 1993. “I’ve worked in the Attorney’s office since 1993. I started out as an associate city attorney and worked my way up to now be one of the chief counsels in the office,” she explained.
It is Shahar’s job to advise the mayor on LGBT issues, however, she still has to separate her personal feelings from her professional opinions. “As a lawyer I have to distinguish between what is in my heart and how I address things professionally. Similarly, as an advisor I have what is in my heart, but I advise the mayor for what makes sense in his role. He feels very passionately about [LGBT rights] and I identify ways for him to accomplish what he wants to accomplish. I take that role very seriously and I’m honored to be in this role,” Shahar commented.
Shahar made an effort to point out that all of her work is made possible because Mayor Reed wants to affect positive change for the LGBT community. “He believes in it. Atlanta has a history of being on the right side of civil rights issues. Civil rights add to the richness of this city. The mayor has identified that LGBT rights are basic human rights. On the issue of marriage equality it took him more time. But he was voting on LGBT equality issues in the legislator in a progressive, supportive way years ago,” Shahar said.
Atlanta has a large and beautifully diverse LGBT community which must make advising the mayor on LGBT issues a daunting task. Shahar has to consider everyone in our community when she makes recommendations to the mayor. “It does feel like a lot of weight, but it gives me the opportunity to help Atlanta be cutting edge on LGBT equal treatment,” she remarked.
If Shahar and Mayor Reed’s goal is to keep Atlanta on the cutting edge of LGBT equal treatment there is data that clearly suggests the Mayor is succeeding. “The city is the first in the deep South to get a 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index,” Shahar cheerfully added, “It is huge for us and that is not a stopping point. It is an area where we will continue to look at cutting edge ways to be supportive of the LGBT community and equal treatment as well as equal rights (because they’re not the same). As his advisor on LGBT issues I’m committed to providing him suggestions on how to do that. He wants to be doing that. I am talking to people, reading things and thinking about ways to improve Atlanta’s protection of LGBT rights.”
One of the ways Shahar is helping Mayor Reed improve LGBT rights for gay Atlantans is through their work with the Freedom to Marry organization. “The Freedom to Marry is an organization that has been around for a while,” Shahar said, “Their goal is to try to get support nationally for marriage equality for different reasons. One of which is that even though the Supreme Court is supposed to be politically neutral the reality is that public opinion does influence the timing of decisions. Freedom to Marry would like to show that there is a majority of Americans that support marriage equality.” Shahar helped Reed get on board as a co-chair of Freedom to Marry’s new initiative, Southerners for the Freedom to Marry. We’re “focusing on the South because it is likely the area of the United States that needs more attention in terms of education and having people think about the issue of marriage equality. Ultimately, it will also allow people who are struggling with it to have their views moved toward understanding the importance of marriage equality. As [Mayor Reed] said in his press conference, he will wear as many hats as necessary to help achieve marriage equality,” Shahar detailed. However, she didn’t ignore the fact that Reed hasn’t always supported marriage equality. Instead, Shahar highlighted Reed’s evolution on gay marriage as the reason for his ardent support. “Marriage equality is an issue that the has struggled with and come to resolution with relatively recently in the past year or so. After making a decision about that issue he felt strongly that he needed to support it. Not just in Atlanta but nationally because it is a basic human right. He supports basic human rights and Atlanta supports basic human rights,” she said.
Atlanta may support gay rights, but the same can’t be said for Georgia after recent legislative scares in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both chambers considered legislation called the “Preservation of Religious Freedom Act,” also known as HB 1023 and SB 377. Critics argued that the bills would legalize anti-gay discrimination. However, Shahar sounded optimistic that Georgia won’t pass these bills. The Georgia anti-gay “bills were almost identical to Arizona’s. What I thought was fascinating and very powerful was that the legislators who wrote the bills in Arizona realized that they had made a mistake and requested the governor veto them. That the Super Bowl came out and said to Arizona, ‘If you pass this we may not come here.’ That respected large corporations said to Arizona, ‘Don’t do this.’ You’re going to have people who feel threatened by the progress of LGBT rights. That’s to be expected. But what’s so fascinating is that they’re being drowned out. It wasn’t even the LGBT community that ultimately changed the minds of these folks. It was the reality that the private sector isn’t going to put up with it. The private sector is no longer behind it. The private sector by and large understands the importance of LGBT equality and is going to say so,” Shahar explained.
So we narrowly prevented a setback here in Georgia with HB 1023 and SB 377. Can Georgia’s LGBT community realize progress when we’re fighting to merely maintain ground? “I never thought that in my lifetime I would see the decision that came out of the Supreme Court this past year. I think that Georgia is moving forward. I think that statewide the progress will take time. I think we’re moving in the right direction consistently. We may have to step back and take two steps forward. I don’t think it will be easy. But I think there are enough people on the right side of this issue that progress will continue to be made. That’s huge. I think the city will lead the way nationwide in terms of progressive policies and progressive laws. Atlanta will continue to be a place where LGBT people will visit and make home. A place where they enjoy living, working and feeling like they are equal citizens like anyone else who lives here,” Shahar concluded.