It was the opening night of the Out Down South exhibit at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta on Oct.26. It was dark outside, but inside, the building was lit with conversation, laughter, and a soothing, bubbly warmth. Eventually, as the night drew on, attendees were ushered into a seat-filled room that was soon buzzing with excitement. The panel – made up of a handful of honored guests, along with some of the project’s photographers and contributors – took stage. Among them was Georgia State Senator Kim Jackson, who, in her moments to talk, spoke calmly, confidently, and powerfully about her experience contributing to the exhibition, in Atlanta, and in her life. Later, as the evening began to die down, I introduced myself, excited to learn more about her and her story.
Born in West Virginia, Kim Jackson grew up in Cowpens, a small South Carolina town. After graduating with a history degree from Furman University, Jackson moved to Atlanta to earn a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. In 2010, Jackson was ordained, becoming the first out queer person of color ever ordained through the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She also serves as the Vicar for the Church of the Common Ground, a congregation that serves a group of unhoused people in downtown Atlanta.
In the 2020 election cycle – a time in which the nation’s eyes and political future rested on Georgia – Jackson made history. She was elected as a State Senator for Georgia State Senate District 41 (representing parts of Dekalb and Gwinnett counties) and became the first LGBTQ+ member of the chamber. A few days before the election – during which she was re-elected by even higher margins than in her 2020 run – I sat down with Senator Jackson (virtually) to talk about Out Down South, her role as a State Senator and public servant, and the advice she has for youth – and queer youth – in Georgia.
You’ve spoken a lot about being the “first” in different areas of your life. What does being the first mean to you?
Being the first is certainly a deep honor, and I think very often about how much trust has been placed in me from my community to allow me to serve in the various capacities that I serve. And it’s also lonely because often times when I’m the first, I’m the only, and I’m the only for a long time. That’s no longer true in the Episcopal Church – I have other out queer folks of color who are serving – but certainly that remains true in the Senate. So there’s a loneliness to it, and there’s also a weightiness to it. I understand that I represent – if the statistics true, if 10% of us are queer – I represent, what, a million people? I represent a lot of people from the LGBTQ+ community by myself!
You’ve done work with youth before – at Emory University, at the Freedom School, and in many other areas. Why do you think nurturing and focusing on a community’s youth – especially youth from marginalized and underrepresented communities – are so important?
I work with youth because youth give me hope. They give me so much hope for a future that I, at this point in my life, have a harder time imagining. Young folks can just dream of a world that I think many of us who have lived long enough are jaded about. It’s not naivety; it’s true hopefulness, and it’s also a true deep conviction of “I’m gonna help us get there” and that just inspires me. I also think that if we’re going to build up a new world together, it has to include everybody who’s here. And if we’re going to make sure that we don’t repeat the failings of our past which have been rooted in racism and sexism and homophobia and ageism then we have to involve people across the age spectrum in the work we’re doing to create this new world.
In the past few months, there has been a lot of controversy around some of the legislation proposed by Georgia State Senators and legislators, namely legislation concerning queer youth. The transgender sports bans, book bans which will limit the availability to LGBTQ+ books in school libraries, and classroom restrictions which could limit discussion on “divisive topics” like LGBTQ+ history. What do you think about this more brazen pushback against queer teen voices and queer voices in general in Georgia?
It’s deeply troubling, and it’s dangerous. Young queer folks are already living in a world and a society where it’s hard to find people who embrace them. To remove books – and full transparency, I was a reader as a kid – I just think about how much reading impacted me. For me, I was a little Black girl in a small town and I read a bunch of books about little Black girls who were involved in the civil rights movement. I have no doubt whatsoever that that has impacted who I am today. And so to remove books that reflect back to a youth, who they are, some portion of their identity – it’s ultimately stifling.
As it relates to the ban on trans sports, that’s just rooted in an absolute misunderstanding of what it means to be trans. It’s also rooted in a complete misunderstanding of how we “save girls’ sports.” I played girls’ sports my entire childhood – I competed well into my adulthood – and I can tell you, if you want to do things to save girls’ sports, make sure that we don’t have to practice at 6:00 o’clock in the morning because the boys are on the basketball court after school. You want to save girls’ sports? Make sure there are opportunities for us to play as many sports as we want and make sure there are equal opportunities. You want to save sports for youth in general? Can we have some co-ed teams? And what about all the kids who aren’t good enough to make varsity? I think about all the girls and all the kids in general who tried out and didn’t make it but still wanted to play sports – where are the options for them? That’s how we actually protect youth sports.
I received a hate call from a constituent, and he said “I saw you on the news. I don’t want my daughter playing with a man on the team!” And I just think “Who’s talking about mixed ages?” We’re not talking about having 21-year-olds playing on the junior varsity team with 14-year-old girls. This is about girls playing girls’ sports. But he was so adamant and so angry – he bought into the narrative. It’s misinformation – it’s intentionally misguiding people to say “It’s going to be a man who’s in the locker room with your little girl.” No, it’s going to be a little girl who’s in the locker room with your little girl.
There has been a lot of opposition towards queer youth in Georgia, but on the flip side – especially in this election cycle and the past few cycles – candidates are attending and walking in the pride parade and speaking out against this homophobic and transphobic legislation. What can we as youth do to turn these demonstrations of support into positive action and progress in the legislature?
I would hope that youth in general, and trans youth specifically, would come and visit us at the Capitol. Give us an email or a call. I work really hard to respond to all emails from people that I love, which are young people and people who are my constituents. I don’t respond to all emails, but if you tell me you’re a young person and if you tell me you live in my district, I’m going to work really hard to respond. I want to hear your ideas. All legislation is birthed out of an idea that starts with someone. I think young people are facing particular things in life that I – as a very, very grown person at this point – don’t know about. It’s up to you all to say “Hey, this law isn’t working for me. This law doesn’t make sense.’” So call us, come to the Capitol – it’s a wild experience. If you want to intern with legislators, often times we have internships available. Take those opportunities because that’s how you influence legislation.
Talking about government specifically, why do you believe queer representation in government – both on the national and local scale – is so important?
Because queer issues are important – we exist – and so we need to be represented because people are making decisions about whether we can get married, about how we can love, whether we can adopt children, whether you can take our children away from us because we’re in queer relationships. There’s so much legislation that impacts [queer] people, and that’s not just on the state level, not just on the federal level. It goes all the way to your school board who’s deciding whether or not we can keep a book on the shelf that references LGBTQ+ concerns. When you have somebody who is a member of the community at the table, having to influence the conversations, it’s just different. I tell people all the time: it is harder for a decent human being to say directly to my face something that’s anti-queer. Because it’s not just an idea; it’s a person that’s embodied. Us showing up and making people look at us in the face – whether that’s at the school board, county commissioner, school level, state and federal levels – they have to say it to us. It makes it harder, and it also gives us the opportunity to pass positive legislation. A lot of the newest things we’ve seen in our state as it relates to HIV and AIDS – a lot of that has been introduced by members of the LGBTQ+ community who are in the State House. It’s not that straight people can’t introduce that legislation, but it does mean something different when it comes from our community.
I did want to discuss the Out Down South exhibit where I got to meet you. I had a wonderful time being a part of it, and I know you got to be a part of it. What was your experience like with the LGBTQ+ History Project with the exhibit and the panel?
Hunter, I will say: I get to be called State Senator Kim Jackson – I have had great honors – but it is sincerely one of the deepest and greatest honors that I have ever received in my life to be included in that exhibit, largely because I looked out in the room and there were so many of my LGBTQ+ elders who were sitting in that audience and who were in that display. People that I have admired; people who have inspired me and paved the way. And it is so deeply humbling to see myself to be with people like Mary Anne Adams. As a Black queer lesbian, when you move to Atlanta, everybody needs to know Mary Anne! So to be on the same stage with her – it was in many ways unreal and unbelievable. To see my face and a portion of my face projected in front of the National Civil and Human Rights Museum, for the little Black girl who is from Cowpens, South Carolina, it is just overwhelming and beautiful and it just wants to make me cry happy tears.
Why do you think the Atlanta LGBTQ+ History Project – and projects like it – are important for queer youth and youth in general?
I will say what other youth have said to me, who have come up to me and gone “Oh my gosh, you inspire me because you exist and because I am a queer youth in a space that I am not necessarily loved and welcomed in.” I think that’s what that exhibit does, not just for young queer folks, but for any youth who has felt marginalized, who’s just had hard times – which is every youth. To look at a display of twelve people who have not just existed, but who have thrived, who have worked to make things a little easier for you, Hunter. It’s inspiring. I hope that youth can look at that display and think “I can do that too, using my own gifts and my own skills. I can help change the world and make history as well.” That’s my hope. You don’t have to wait until your 30s. Talk to [Georgia State Senator] Sam Park, talk to me. We starting doing this, standing up for ourselves – standing up for other people – in high school, in middle school.
Right after I was elected in 2019, I received a direct message from a youth who was currently in the high school that I grew up in. She wrote me and she said “Dear Ms. Jackson, I am a junior at Broom High School and I am queer and it’s terrible, but seeing that you got elected makes me know that something good can come out of a place like this, so maybe I can do something good too.” And I will always, always hold that message deep in my heart. A little girl like me, from Cowpens, South Carolina and a one-stop town, can do something good, and so can you, wherever you’re from.
The Out Down South exhibition is now on display at the National Center For Civil and Human Rights in Downtown Atlanta. Details can be found here.