(l to r) Rome Pride, Sabastion Mikel and son Jaxen, and Justin Deal. Photos by Ivan Felipe and Lee Jones.
There’s Atlanta, and then there’s Georgia.
My photographer and I, firmly in the former category, were clear about this as we loaded his camera equipment onto my backseat before pulling out of his driveway on an unusually cool October morning en route to Rome, Georgia.
We were two Black gay men leaving behind the safety and inclusiveness — both actual and perceived — that we sometimes take for granted living in Georgia’s most populated city. And unlike many other cities in Georgia, Rome’s national reputation had already been shaped in our consciousness before we entered the city’s downtown area.
Before the 2020 election of Marjorie Taylor Greene to the U.S. House of Representatives, the city of Rome, a small, picturesque southern town an hour north of Atlanta, flew under the national political radar.
Today, it’s nearly impossible for the 14th Congressional District, home to over 700,000, predominately white (73%) Georgia citizens, and ranking as the 28th most Republican district nationally, to avoid the national spotlight.
Largely because of Greene, Rome reaches beyond its seven hills and three rivers onto the national stage. With every tweet, election denial lie, and QAnon conspiracy theory amplified, Greene simultaneously energizes her supporters and humiliates a minority of the district’s residents in favor of her political agenda.
In February 2021, Greene drew applause from supporters for her opposition to The Equality Act — a long-stalled bill first that would extend civil rights protections to the queer community. But it was Rep. Marie Newman’s (D-IL) decision to erect a trans flag in support of her trans daughter outside her congressional office that provoked Greene to erect an opposing sign declaring “THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS: MALE & FEMALE,” thereby erasing non-binary and trans people while inspiring supporters to echo her anti-trans rhetoric on Twitter.
While Greene and other Republican leaders deploy fear tactics to rile up their base, her actions continue to have real-life consequences for her constituents in Rome, especially for the parents of trans children who believe Greene’s anti-trans rhetoric creates an environment in Rome where their children are less safe.
Rome resident Lynn Green is president of Rome, Georgia’s PFLAG chapter and mother of 15-year-old trans son Ashby. After living a quiet, mostly apolitical life for nearly two decades, she founded a local PFLAG chapter after her son came out as trans three years ago and discovered that she was not the only mother of a trans or gay child in Rome.
“A lot of straight cisgendered families don’t talk about it, so it’s not well known,” she says. “But I guarantee that the family sitting next to you in church or the guy at the restaurant at the next table either has a queer immediate family member, cousin, or friend. But we don’t talk about it. And so, nobody knows here.”
Green tells Queerty that living in the district can be scary. More than 73% of residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election, and families like hers are constantly on the receiving end of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s rhetorical blows.
And with the Republican stronghold on the district and Marjorie Taylor Greene campaign signs on almost every block, it’s a constant reminder that queer people in Rome are not only in the minority but the fodder for political attacks that only threaten to get worse in a Republican Congressional majority. In addition, residents across the state face the continued advancement of anti-LGBTQ legislation, including Georgia House Bill 1084, which created an athletic committee with the power to ban transgender youth from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Governor Brian Kemp signed the bill into law this April and remains ahead in the polls in his reelection campaign again LGBTQ stalwart Stacy Abrams.
The fight for trans equality
Sabastion Mikel, 29, is a trans father and birth parent of two boys, Jaxen, 6, and Colin, 3.
A Locust Grove, Georgia native, Mikel is approaching his second year as a Rome resident. He began transitioning at 18 after a tumultuous coming out that led him to escape during his senior year to a now-closed safe house for trans people in Arizona. While he prefers small-town life, Mikel says living in the conservative area as a trans person comes at a price.
“Being an out queer person is kind of scary here. I have concerns about going to the doctor sometimes. I have been turned down in the past for medical care because I am trans,” he says.
In August, Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced the Protect Children’s Innocence Act, a bill that would make providing gender-affirming care to a minor a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison with a maximum fine of $25,000.
Access to affirming trans healthcare is also a concern for Green and her trans son, who have witnessed trans adults in Rome drive as far as 200 miles to Augusta, Georgia, to receive appropriate medical care.
“One of the good things to come out of the pandemic is we’re able to see a doctor in Decatur [Georgia], virtually,” Green says. “My child won’t go to the doctor here. My child wouldn’t go to immediate care even when he had COVID because all his charts say F for female.”
In Georgia, trans individuals must undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS) before legally amending the gender marker on their birth certificate. Some jurisdictions, however, permit a gender marker change if the individual is undergoing hormone therapy. Green says her son’s legal name change now appears on his birth and medical records. And at 15, he has also begun hormone therapy, a medical decision Green says was necessary for his mental health.
“I know my child, and they were not okay,” she says. “This is not a decision that me and his dad made on a whim. Through conversations with therapists and the doctor, we learned that we could try very small increments of things. And if it’s working, then we know we’re on the right track. And if it’s not working, then we stop. No harm, no foul. No permanent changes,” she says.
The American Medical Association (AMA) supports Green’s claims and issued a formal recommendation to the National Governors Association in April 2021, urging member governors to oppose state legislation prohibiting medically necessary gender transition-related care to minors.
AMA chief executive officer Dr. James L. Madara wrote that “mental health counseling, non-medical social transition, gender-affirming hormone therapy, and/or gender-affirming surgeries” were medically accepted standards of care, concluding that “it is imperative that transgender minors be given the opportunity to explore their gender identity under the safe and supportive care of a physician.”
In Rome, Green has become a surrogate mother, and her home a safe place for other trans kids who have experienced rejection or been denied medical care — scenarios that Green struggles to accept.
“Why would you not accept your child? I can’t imagine acting any other way or making any other decisions,” she says. “I wish that more people would be open to at least considering [hormone therapy] and having the conversation. It might not be right for every child, but if it’s right for yours, it’ll save their life.”
Green says her entire family is prepared with passports if the proposed bill prohibiting gender-affirming care ever becomes law.
“Who would’ve ever thought I’d have a conversation with my 15-year-old child about what country would you want to live in if we had to leave?” she says. “I never in my life would have predicted those conversations.”
Pride comes in all shapes and sizes
Like Green, Justin Deal, 36, is a Rome activist out of necessity. Deal identifies as pansexual and is the driving force behind the city’s inaugural Rome Pride. The event drew hundreds of people to Heritage Park in June. A few weeks prior, Marjorie Taylor Greene publicly called for an end to Pride Month while citing the “possible extinction of straight people within 150 years.”
“When I think about her [Greene], she’s the epitome and kind of a microcosm of the problems in this area,” Deal says. “And she’s exacerbated those and made them worse.”
According to Deal, Greene’s rhetoric has trickled down into the community, saying it’s not uncommon for Rome Pride to receive emails with profanity and anti-gay slurs. But the unwanted coverage on Greene’s weekly Facebook live show featuring drag performer Benjamin Gentry’s (aka Courtney Chanel Stratton) scheduled appearance during drag queen story time spurred death threats. Gentry subsequently withdrew from the event out of safety concerns.
Gentry accuses Greene of attempting to dox him.
“You can hear her say during the live stream, ‘Do we know where — does he live in Rome?’ She was trying to find my home address to give it out,” he says.
Gentry and Pride organizers secretly relocated drag queen story time and notified registered attendees of the new location.
“All these people who were supposedly going to stop drag queen story time showed up to the gazebo to nothing,” Gentry says through laughter. “We had even more people come to see it because of her free advertising.”
“She was poking the bear,” Deal explains. “And at that point, we were just a small-town Pride. We weren’t looking for that kind of coverage.”
Then like clockwork, Greene published a tweet in June threatening to introduce legislation to make it illegal for children to be exposed to drag performances.
The uphill battle to unseat Marjorie Taylor Greene
Marcus Flowers, an army veteran and former official for the Department of Defense, is Greene’s Democratic opponent in the 14th Congressional District seat race.
His surprise appearance donning his signature Black cowboy hat in the Rome Pride Parade and his willingness to listen to their concerns amid Greene’s chaos has endeared him to the local queer community.
“As a member of Congress, you represent all of the constituents of your district, no matter race, creed, religion, or sexual preference,” Flowers tells Queerty. “And that’s what members of Congress like Marjorie Taylor Greene are forgetting.”
Wendy Davis, who lost the Democratic primary election to Flowers but served two terms as Rome’s city commissioner, says that while Greene’s conspiracy theories have gotten most of the attention, she’s actually remained focused on the bread-and-butter of the GOP base.
“How we get here wasn’t because everybody around here went QAnon cuckoo,” Davis told The Guardian. “We got here because she loved Trump, she loved guns, she hated socialism, she hated abortion and that won that primary and it’s a Republican district.”
Will slow and steady win the race?
For Deal, Greene’s actions are the fuel that ignites their activism in Rome and keeps Deal from fleeing to a more progressive city. Deal tells Queerty that many residents react positively to the growing visibility of the LGBTQ community in the conservative town. And despite the lack of gay bars or businesses, unexpected allies are creating space.
“There’s never really been an establishment. We have a few spots that’ll do an LGBTQ night. We now have drag shows at least once a month at Peaches,” Deal says, referencing the nightclub venue in Rome that has provided space for local drag queens to perform.
Surprisingly, many local businesses jumped at the opportunity to sponsor Rome Pride.
“We were blown away,” Green says. “Come to find out, they all have a connection, a child, a brother, or a sister that’s part of the community. And so it was important for them to support. But you wouldn’t know that by walking down the street.”
Because of Deal and Green’s organizing, the city of Rome has officially recognized June as LGBTQ Pride Month, a process that only requires approval from the city clerk’s office after citizen request, according to Kristi Kent, communications director for the City of Rome.
The proclamation request received little pushback.
That’s not to say the district will become more accepting any time soon. Flowers faces an uphill battle unseating Greene in November, given Greene’s commanding lead in the polls.
But for Gentry, who references one of Greene’s most widely derided conspiracy theories with the wit of his drag persona, the choice is clear.
“The b*tch believes in space lasers,” he says of Greene’s rant about the cause of California’s 2018 wildfires. “How can you vote for someone that thinks Jewish space lasers are turning people gay and liberal?”
Despite her antics and the inhospitality of some residents, the LGBTQ community in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District isn’t going anywhere.
In fact, they’re only getting louder.