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Michelle Nunn's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

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MICHELLE NUNN
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

A worried mother living in rural North Georgia recently called my office seeking legal advice. She divorced a few years back and got custody of her kids. Now, after learning that she is a lesbian and living with another woman, her ex-husband has filed a lawsuit seeking to take custody away from her.

Sadly, I regularly receive calls like these at my Atlanta law practice. When making child custody determinations, some Georgia judges do not look fondly on a parent's cohabitating with a romantic interest outside wedlock. Add to that the parent's being gay or lesbian, and, as a lawyer, I have my work cut out for me. Moreover, in 2004, Georgia voters approved a state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. As I spoke to her, this mother was weeping as she explained her distress at Georgia's contradictory refusal to allow her to marry her partner while at the same time possibly taking her children away because she is not married.

Despite the extraordinary gains made in recent years to stamp out the stigma attached to being LGBT, life for many gay Southerners (especially those living in rural areas) can still be very difficult. Our history has proven -- time and again -- that the most effective antidote to anti-gay bigotry is LGBT people coming out and putting a face on and giving a voice to our lives. But we can't do it alone; in order for life in Georgia and throughout the South to truly improve, we need our straight friends and political allies to similarly "come out" in their support of our equality.

That is why I get ticked when politicians and political candidates purporting to support LGBT equality do things that actually harm us. Take, for example, the U.S. Senate candidacy of Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn. Ms. Nunn is running in a competitive race for an open seat against Republican David Perdue. There is little doubt where Mr. Purdue stands on LGBT issues (strongly opposed), but there is a lot of doubt about where Ms. Nunn stands. And what to do about that is an issue Georgia's LGBT community is wrestling with today.

There are some who say we should not press Ms. Nunn on our issues, especially marriage equality, because doing so will hurt her campaign, and we know that she will, at the very least, be better than the Republican.

I strongly disagree.

Ms. Nunn has actively reached out to the LGBT community for campaign cash and votes. In private, Ms. Nunn reportedly says that she supports LGBT issues and may even "personally" support marriage equality. Her campaign, however, has thus far been stone-cold silent on gay issues.

There is no reference on either Ms. Nunn's campaign's website or Facebook page to any issue close to the gay community's heart (like ENDA), nor even a mention of Georgia's LGBT community. Ms. Nunn has repeatedly refused interview requests with gay media outlets. In fact, her only public LGBT issue position is that she believes same-sex marriage should be "left to the states." This aligns her with those supporting our state's marriage ban -- a despicable position for her to have because it gives credibility to the intolerance currently enshrined in Georgia's constitution.

Ms. Nunn's silence and deference "to the states" stands in stark contrast with two other Georgia Democrats running for statewide office, Jason Carter (governor) and Greg Hecht (attorney general). Both Carter and Hecht have publicly said they support marriage equality without caveat.

Ms. Nunn's campaign is viable because of Georgia's rapidly changing demographics, coupled with her family name. More than 1.5 million people have moved into Georgia since 2004, the state's population is now 45-percent minority, and many political pundits believe Georgia is trending toward purple.

Ms. Nunn's father, Sam Nunn, served as a U.S. senator from Georgia from 1972 until 1997, and her campaign is aggressively invoking her father and his likeness. Their hope is that voters will see, in the daughter, "enough of the father to take a chance," as one 62-year-old Army veteran told Time after revealing his plan to vote for a Democrat, Ms. Nunn, for the first time since he supported her father.

For LGBT Georgians, however, the legacy of the elder Nunn is nothing to "take a chance" on. Sam Nunn was notoriously anti-LGBT. In the 1980s he fired two of his Senate staffers upon learning they were gay. He also infamously led the 1993 fight against allowing gays to serve in the military. The resulting "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) law was intended to keep gay military personnel invisible and silent.

If Ms. Nunn wants to run on her father's legacy, she has to embrace that entire legacy or explain how she is different -- something she has failed to do when it comes to LGBT issues. Instead, like her father before her, she is embracing a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to our community. This only perpetuates anti-gay stigma because it's easy to dislike those you do not know and cannot see.

Thankfully, attitudes on LGBT issues are improving. For example, an Atlanta Journal Constitution poll taken last fall found that more Georgians now support same-sex marriage than oppose it.

We are in a new era where supporting LGBT issues does not have the electoral implications it once did. The equality movement repealed DADT by telling stories of the service and sacrifice of our LGBT troops. In the several election cycles since that bipartisan vote, no one -- neither Republican nor Democrat -- has suffered at the polls as a result of supporting repeal. Can someone name one U.S. Senate or House race today where a candidate's position on LGBT issues is having an impact? I can't.

If Ms. Nunn is running to lead the Georgia of the future and the state's evolving electorate, then leading on LGBT issues will help her make that case and become that candidate.

The gay-marriage bans passed by Georgia and some other states have the same intent as DADT: to keep gays on the margins of society. Gay Southerners must stop allowing politicians who claim to be our friends to promulgate the silence and invisibility of LGBT people. We must ask, and we must insist, that they tell. As with the repeal of DADT, the resulting positive conversation will destroy stereotypes and stigma; it will promote and educate people about the truth of LGBT lives and families.

Only then can I hope that my law office's phone will stop ringing with calls from frightened LGBT moms and dads living in constant fear of the prejudice that is allowed to fester by the silence of our political "friends."