Two separate state Capitol races on Tuesday offered up a lesson in sexual politics in metro Atlanta, and how the language we use to discuss the topic is rapidly changing.
This is a tale of two anonymous robocalls — those annoying, automated messages that dog your home land line every election season. Both were last-minute attacks, and each was designed to anger opposite sides of the gay marriage argument.
Neither worked, and many would say this is the good news. At the very least, take it as a sign of shifting attitudes even in one of the reddest states in the nation.
House District 34 is a decidedly conservative district that sits astride both Kennesaw and Marietta, and until Tuesday was held by state Rep. Charles Gregory, a libertarian-inclined Republican. His primary challenger was Bert Reeves, a Marietta attorney and first-time candidate.
Sometime on Monday afternoon in the two o’clock hour, answering machines in District 34 began absorbing this automated message from a lisping male voice:
“Global Action for Trans Equality would like to endorse Bert Reeves for the seat of your next state House representative. Bert Reeves and his partner Matt have been well-respected attorneys in Marietta for a long time….”
Whisper campaigns involving sexuality are nothing new in politics – and this was no whisper. What was different was the reaction of both candidates.
Gregory immediately recognized the robocall as a threat to his own campaign, and denounced it as “complete nonsense.” He wondered aloud whether the robocall might even be the work of his opponent to generate sympathy.
Now, ponder Gregory’s theory. Not about who paid for the automated calls – chances are that it was the work of one of Gregory’s own friends, an ill-judged attempt to help the incumbent.
But look at Gregory’s suspicion that the calls were intended to provoke sympathy. That implies a widespread acceptance, in a right-leaning GOP district, of a “lifestyle” that only a few years ago was gently condemned as “alternative.”
Reeves, too, was thrust into a quandary. In years past, the proper way to respond to an accusation of homosexuality would be a public burst of testosterone – perhaps a dead deer slung across one’s shoulders.
But Reeves no doubt has gay friends he didn’t want to offend. “I’m not interested in alienating myself from anyone,” he said Wednesday. “Hate speech is never appropriate.”
Reeves’ pre-election reaction to the robocalls was limited to a discrete reference to his longtime girlfriend, Amy Owens.
She and many other women were at Reeves’ campaign party off the Marietta Square on Tuesday night. All introduced themselves as “Matt.”
Reeves beat Gregory by 245 votes. There is no Democrat in the race.
Then we have the case of Decatur-centered Senate District 42, held by the exiting Jason Carter. The row between Democrats Elena Parent, a former state representative, and Kyle Williams, a Decatur attorney, was epic.
The gay vote is strong in District 42, and Williams showcased his ambition to be the first openly gay man to serve in the state Senate.
On Monday, a robocall hit the district, from a group calling itself DeKalb Citizens for Elena. The message essentially endorsed Parent as a model heterosexual – a “straight-shooter” who “knows what it takes to raise a family.”
Parent denied having anything to do with the automated message, and denounced it – particularly the phrase “straight-shooter.”
“The way it was used with the other language implied an anti-gay message,” Parent said Wednesday, adding that she didn’t suspect her opponent of generating the robocall.
But Parent theorized that one of Williams’ friends might have been responsible.
“None of us has a clue about where it came from or who did it,” said Beth Cope, Williams’ campaign manager.
The robocall raised the level of tension in the gay community to the point that the Georgia Voice, as it condemned the “straight-shooter” robocall in an editorial, also pointed a finger at state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver.
The Decatur lawmaker had written an emailed endorsement of Parent that included this line: “We attend the same church, she has two beautiful children and she and her husband and boys live in Druid Hills.”
The response from the newspaper: “Please, this is gay baiting at its worst.”
We know gay people who have children. This is, in part, what the fight over marriage is about. We know that gay people go to church. Several schisms prove it. “Mary Margaret is not anti-gay,” said state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, who has two children and has been known to breach a sanctuary door or two.
This is the South. We invented the use of code words that give a polite veneer to discrimination. But clearly, we need to have a discussion of what this new vocabulary might be, or we will be quickly talking past each other.
Parent, by the way, crushed Williams with 65 percent of the vote. There is a Republican in the race, Gregory Williams, but he stands little chance in November.
One final note: Both Parent and Reeves say they are already in conversations with attorneys to track the sources of the offending robocalls, which are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.