An elected official's story of faith, homosexuality, and impact.

I Am Gay. I Am Religious.

By Caroline Campbell on Jan 5, 2018
IGI Global’s award-winning editor and first openly-gay legislator of the Georgia House of Representatives, Dr. Karla Drenner, speaks on her life-story to promote change and create impact through her forward-thinking research and recent IGI Global publication, Impacts of Faith-Based Decision Making on the Individual-Level Legislative Process: Emerging Research and Opportunities.
Dr. Karla Drenner, professor of Public Administration at Kaplan University, grew up in the majestic Appalachian Mountains that cut through the state of West Virginia. In the backdrop of the wild rural state, a young woman learned the meaning of prejudice and discrimination. But from the beginning, even in the face of adversity, she knew she was different and supposed to enact change.

“I was raised a Baptist [in] West Virginia. West Virginians are religious people. This does not mean that they always go to church regularly, but they are religious in the sense that most of their values spring from the Bible. Producing a strong sense of what is ‘right’ and what ‘ought to be’, they have a deep mistrust of anyone who is new and resists change,” explained Drenner.

Where religion meets homosexuality

When Drenner opened up about her sexuality, she witnessed the backlash of going against what is ‘right’ and what ‘ought to be’.

“As a teenager, I experienced first-hand this resistance and I never thought that I could confront the challenges of being openly gay.”

These challenges, however, lead to a life of research, accomplishment and leadership, and inspired her to commit her life to education, research and action. When Drenner was in her twenties, one defining moment made this mission clear:

“One afternoon my Grandmother and I were in the car together. I was driving and she was sitting in the back seat. We were talking about nothing in particular, when out of the blue she said, “I am worried about you, because you are not going to the same place that I am going to…”?

I knew immediately what she was talking about. I responded to her seeking to avoid addressing the intent of her comment, “Grandma, of course I am going where you are going, I am driving!”

She was not amused by my response stating very matter of fact, “You know what I am talking about!”

Yes, of course I did, she meant heaven. I would not be with her because I was gay. I took a deep breath anticipating the discussion that I knew that would follow and said “Grandma, you don’t have to worry about me because I found a bigger God, one that loves me for me.” My response of course ignited the “hell fire” conversation that followed. She was very clear that there was only “one God” which was hers and as far she was concerned “he” did not approve of me being gay.

For most West Virginians, religion is something that has shaped their lives, creating a culture with its own unique worldview and values. My Grandmother’s views were not unique and my search for a bigger god led me to Georgia.

I strongly believe that our freedom is ultimately not guaranteed by the constitution; the only thing that guarantees freedom, ultimately, is our own commitment to it. That commitment must include our capacity to love each other as human beings, to remember that we are brothers and sisters on this planet and that the only way to protect our freedom is to check the hatred in our own minds. My Grandmothers story is the core of my own journey…that of searching for a bigger God.”

From there, Drenner went on and received multiple degrees including a doctorate in Public Policy Analysis & Administration from St. Louis University and Occupational Safety & Health from LaSalle University. As she stated, this led her to Georgia where she ran for public political office.

She was elected as the first openly elected gay legislator in the southeast and is currently in her ninth term serving in the Georgia House of Representatives, and she sits on five legislative committees including: Rules; Health and Human Services; Natural Resources and the Environment; Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications; and Small Business Development.

“In my mind Georgia was the last place on earth I would want to live and raise my family. I have come to believe that Georgia is where I was meant to be, serving as a catalyst for change.”

As Georgia was where Bowers vs. Hardwick originated from which made homosexual sodomy illegal and although, the Supreme Court decision has been overturned, it still solidified the discriminatory nature of the state towards homosexuals, and she argues it is the court case that perpetuated hatred towards the gays across the country.

Although, the life story of Drenner has led her to accomplishments including winning the Women of Excellence Award; the Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award from the Human Rights Campaign from the National Foundation of Women Legislators and many more, she has always wrestled with the conflicts that exist between her, as a member of the LGBT community, and people of faith. This lead her to begin to publish research and her recent IGI Global publication Impacts of Faith-Based Decision Making on the Individual-Level Legislative Process: Emerging Research and Opportunities.

The publication delves into the research of the impact of religious influences on modern society and law. It outlines how faith can transform the legislative decision-making process and was published in a relevant time, Drenner explains that the tension between religious freedom and marriage equality has changed drastically with the increase of legislative measures protecting individuals that have faith-based objections.

From the baker that refused to bake a cake for a gay couple to the failed California ban, it is clear that America is a divided country, and “it seems as if the LGBT community has a rocky road ahead. One possible recommendation aside from moving to Canada is to get involved in the political process.”

Whether it is a fight for civil liberties or an action that is influencing a community, citizens can be more involved in the legislative process by educating themselves on issues that impact their daily lives. Drenner recommends these actions that will help people enact change:

  • Increasing awareness on who your elected officials are in your area
  • Meeting your city council, school boards, state legislators and Congressional members
  • Attending community meetings
  • Volunteering for local organizations that contribute to your community

“Everyone is busy and it’s easier to watch the news and fuss at the TV and complain to your friends. Maybe even follow up by sending either a mass templated email or a mean-spirited email threatening never “to-vote” for that person again! From my experience, if you really want to be heard, you have to show up-physically!”

It is clear that these actions have assisted Drenner in advocating for her cause, and she states the three key elements of her success is persistence, a focused passion and a lot of patience. Although, the war between religion and homosexuality may never be settled, it is important to understand how foundational beliefs/narratives can impact the political climate and the importance of political engagement.

“From my personal perspective, I am not seeking to banish religion or its citizens from modern politics, but to encourage them to offer rationale [behind the] reasonable claims about basic equality and justice for all,” explained Drenner.

So, whether it is getting more politically involved or standing up for your beliefs, American citizens can learn on both sides from Drenner’s story and research. She still stands strong in her faith and yet is focused on ensuring the next generation is safely guarded from discrimination.

"There are many ways to carry messages and I am standing where God has placed me, just being who I am. I think when each of us is true to ourselves, the world is made better.”

About Dr. Karla Drenner

Dr. Karla Drenner headshotKarla L. Drenner is a lead professor in the Public Administration department at Kaplan University. Her research focuses on women in public service, religion and politics and social equity issues. She is in her 9th term serving in the Georgia House of Representatives and sits on five legislative committees including: Rules; Health and Human Services; Natural Resources and the Environment; Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications; and, Small Business Development. She was elected as the first openly gay legislator in the southeast and seeks to share her first-hand experience of the legislative process and the importance of bridging the divides between our differences.

Her leadership, courageousness, and compassion for equality has earned her recognition from numerous organizations such as: National Foundation for Women Legislators, Women of Excellence Award; the Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award from the Human Rights Campaign; Legislator of the Year by the Southeast Association of Telecommunications, Nine-time winner of the Georgia League of Conservation Voters’ Environmental Leadership Award; the “Legislative Service Award” from the Georgia Opticians Association for her work on improving the education requirements for opticians; the “Voices of Note Award” from the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus; she has been named a “Diva for Life” by Business-to-Business magazine; the Advocate named her a “Ballotbox Trailblazer;” and she received the “Legislator of the Year” from the Organization of DeKalb Educators; Georgia Psychological Association honoured her for her “LGBT Advocacy” along with Stonewall Bar Association who presented her with the “Courageous Service Award. And from Georgia Equality she was named “Champion for Equality.” Other honours’ include “Excellence in Partnership Award” from the Community Action Program, for her work on refugee microenterprise initiatives and the AIDS Survival Project named her a “Legislative Hero” for her efforts in combatting AIDS.

For additional peer-reviewed research on these issues, please preview the publications below and recommend them to your librarian:

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of IGI Global.

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