When the image of a politician comes to your mind, are they female? Queer? African American? Twenty-four years old? Park Cannon is all of these things, and she is not a brief guest character on a TV show that considers itself edgy. She is a new representative in the Georgia state legislature. She is also currently fighting to expand Medicaid and protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.
photos via Facebook
After a recent appearance at the We Are All Women rally at Black Atlanta Pride’s 2oth-anniversary celebration, she took some time to talk with AfterEllen about being a queer black woman in politics.
AfterEllen.com: Being a politician is not the first job that a lot of queer people imagine themselves doing. How do you handle working with so many politicians who have different beliefs and politics?
Park Cannon: One of the things that has been an exciting challenge for me with coming into the Georgia legislature with one of three openly gay people—[as] the first person identifying as queer, the youngest person, an African American woman, someone who in socioeconomic frame is not very privileged—I really had to think about where my battles are.
And so coming into office and running I made it very clear from the start that I wasn’t going to succumb to infighting in the community and I wasn’t solely going to focus myself on some of the big battles. I was going to do both. So that means going these events like [the screening of the film] The Same Difference to see what is the language going on in our community as we call each other these names and put these norms on each other—what’s the contemporary version of those? Because that’s where the other side is getting their language from.
I have to be able to say to those conservative folks—just the same way that in your church there are those “more Baptist” than others, folks who claim themselves to be perfectly holy all the time and the other person isn’t as holy—that’s the same thing that goes on in the LGBTQ community. And to say whether or not this is a belief that you hold, it is a fact. We are walking around in the world with you; we are leading our lives. Most of the time you probably don’t even know, because we are not wearing a scarlet letter or we don’t have a bumper sticker, but we’re here.
The most challenging work so far that I have taken on is to say that I’m going to explore these internal spaces and these external spaces and see where we can get from there to advance the rights of the LGBTQ people.
AE: In your political work, do you feel pigeonholed by your identity?
PC: Not yet. I think it’s been an active resistance on my part and those who are a part of my campaign or office. For example, during the campaign (which is about to hit its earmark very soon in November) we have taken my name ID in the city of Atlanta and in the state of Georgia and across the country from zero to whatever other exponential number multiplier you would like to have, because of the media. And most of the media that we’ve got—although we did get CNN and some very notable other news outlets—was from gay media. And they were looking for the angle to put me in the box of this queer candidate or this queer legislator. And that’s great; I’m so thankful for the ability to have those conversations.
The challenge… is to be able to remind people that this is not about Park Cannon herself. It’s about the community and people coming down the road ten years from now. This is not about me trying to claim a first or to do a thing. It’s really about me trying to make sure that once people graduate from high school and move towards college and look for internships in legislative seats, there aren’t questions about whether or not their identity should even be brought up. I’m hopeful that at some point, we won’t even have to be talking about gender orientation all the time.
But until then, I’m very much committed to it, to having those conversations, and so are my staff members and my volunteers, people showing up and being themselves. And if they find it most comfortable to present themselves in a feminine way as they’re canvassing—they might have some facial hair—then that’s what I want them to do. And that’s what we’re doing; we’re making sure there’s space for folks to show up as they are. And if there’s someone or something that wants to pigeonhole them, then we bring it back to the issue of equality and access.
AE: Have you worked with organizations who encourage people to get involved in politics and not feel like their gender or sexual identity prohibits that, the way it has so frequently in our history?
PC: There are some organizations that are doing the groundwork here in Atlanta and in the state of Georgia… That behind-the-scenes work is so important. It’s critical—it is what helped me get my message out and move the work that I was trying to do, so that once I did win the seat and get into office, I had a support system around me that could really support when I was speaking out against our anti-LGBTQ bill the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
It was really good to have Georgia Equality folks be there with me and retweet it and share it with their conservative legislator. That was paramount. And then, to think about the national strategies that are going on, the Victory Fund is the leading organization that helps to get people in our community to office, not only through financial expenditures but also through training. They have trainings at least three times a year… to show and to teach that what we do is expose our stories so that we can get to policy issues… I’ll be speaking at one of their events in Nashville in November, just to continue to spread the positivity around us running for office. There’s about 450 elected LGBTQ folks across the country. That is a very low number, but we’re still pushing.
AE: There are two other out representatives in the Georgia legislature. Do you end up standing together and working together closely?
PC: Most definitely. They are such pioneers and rocks for me. It was really exciting when I was asked to run for office. I was asked by the outgoing Georgia representative at that time, who was one of the three gay folks: Simone Bell. And upon her leaving, I think the other two legislators were a little sad. They were wondering who was going to be there after this legislator because that’s very much how she was, coming from a nonprofit and doing advocacy work. Both of the other two folks are very business-minded and have come to their advocacy for the LGBTQ community from another way.
And so I think they were anticipating just having less representation, and so they embraced me immediately and were excited that I was willing to have these conversations. And now when we travel to different places and do legislative conferences unrelated to the LGBTQ community, they’re a little bit more willing to bring up that piece. Because once we get in the room with 50 other legislators from across the country and it’s still only the three of us who identify as out, it becomes very obvious that this is work that can not only be done in silos or only in our state; it’s got to travel nationally.
AE: Do you feel like you’re the tip of the iceberg? Are we going to see better representation in the future?
PC: I really feel like the work has been done to get me here. Although I am the fist person who identifies as queer, we still have barely had any gay men in our general assembly. I know that there have been gay men who ran for office…
I think the groundwork has been laid since Stonewall. People have been willing to share their stories and in some ways be political pawns. I think we’re moving out of that time frame right now where we have marriage equality, and we have organizations that are already set up to fight these fights alongside us. So I think that there will be more in quantity running for office.
AE: What does it mean to you to be Southern? How has being a Southern woman and a Southern politician affected your experience, your tactics, and how you do your job?
PC: Thanks for asking that; I always enjoy talking a little bit about being a girl raised in the South. We definitely like our grits. I need to start with my hearty breakfast and get ready to tackle the heat as soon as I walk outside the door. I always used to think about New York as a place that keeps you humble because the weather is atrocious some of the time. You can’t in November walk outside in New York in some shorts and some boots. You’ve got to be geared up already.
And so in the South, in that same way, there’s a heat that is always rising, and that is always around the corner from you. And so I don’t know when I pull out of my driveway if I’m going to see someone with a Confederate flag bumper sticker or with an NRA logo saying that they’re being supported by those who protect the right to bear arms, which is very politically different than me, but that might just happen. So I feel like down here, I’ve got to be ready.
AE: When did you first come out? Were you living in Georgia at the time?
PC: Yes, I was. Here in Atlanta.
AE: What was that like? Did that experience inform how you interact with people going forward?
PC: First, I’ll say, I’m out of the closet and not going back in, for anyone at any time. The idea of that definitely gives me the hives. So I’m very excited that I’m at the point where I can be out, but I know that that’s not possible for everyone. I know that’s a barrier when it comes to housing or financial security or job security. It’s still very much legal to be fired—in the city of Atlanta not so much, but in the state of Georgia—very much for being LGBTQ. And one of my closest friends got married in 2014 and immediately experienced harassment at her job when she began talking about her wedding and her wife. And so that’s one of the fights that I think very deeply on, the need for statewide non-discrimination and employment policies.
I say that to say that I don’t ever want to step on anyone’s coming out story. I don’t want to be the person who is at all times saying, “I’m out, and you should be too.” I would much rather say, “Hey, I’m out, and I am being visible for all of us who just can’t right now and who are working their way towards getting there.” If that means that someone wants to call me and have a conversation about how I feel and what it means to be out, then I do that. I love to do that. If it just means that someone wants to write me a letter to my legislative office and say, “Thank you” and “I’m curious, what resources do you have?”
I want to be able to give those resources, but it’s still a very hostile climate down here. And I still get calls from blocked numbers or from numbers that are theirs, because they want me to call them back; they want to antagonize me, and they’re looking for a fight. But definitely coming off of this Labor Day weekend where we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Atlanta’s black gay pride and had a film screening, all about our wonderful LGBTQ community, I am totally optimistic right now and ready to continue digging in.
AE: Is it tricky dating as a politician?
PC: That’s always a conversation that can get interesting, and I have to go back to my gendered conservative perspective or thought bubble on that. I intend to serve the state of Georgia for as long as I can, for as long as it makes sense, and I do think that when you have a long-term perspective with regards to serving the public, you wouldn’t want anything in your personal life to come out and to reflect negatively.
And so I’ve thought very deeply about what it means to be a young person on the weekends, what it means to be a person who would like to date, what it means to be a person who loves my family and would like to share information about my family with others, but needing to just pull it back in and remember that this is my job. And my job is to serve others, and that comes first.