Fulton County Vice Chair Joan P. Garner, beloved leader and activist, passed away at the age of 65 on Tuesday, April 18, after her prolonged battle with breast cancer.
Her willingness to fight oppression in all its forms has changed the lives of not only people in Atlanta, but across the Southern region. 24 years ago, Garner co-founded Southerners On the Ground (SONG), a regional Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South. From her roles in the Southern Partners Fund and as a Fulton County Commissioner, Garner was known as a shining light.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1951, Garner was heavily influenced by the civil rights movement and used her inspiration after moving to Atlanta in 1978. Her advocacy for the gay and lesbian community came at a time when homosexuality was even more dangerous than it is now. Garner’s passing drew heavy hearts around Atlanta from many within the LGBTQ community, government leaders, and activists.
Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, the first openly LGBT elected official in Georgia history, told the Georgia Voice, “Commissioner Garner was a friend and my heart is broken today. She exemplified all that was good about a public servant – honest, kind, hardworking, truly representative of the greater good. We are all better people from knowing her and benefiting from her contributions to our community. May she rest in peace and we all surround and support her wife, Jane, though this incredibly sad time.”
Fulton County Chairman John H. Eaves adds, “We will miss her thoughtful service, her passion for equity, and, especially, her smile and her warmth.”
In a statement on the behalf of Georgia Equality, Executive Director Jeff Graham stated, “In both her personal and professional lives, Joan was a tireless advocate for LGBT Georgians, people living with HIV and others. The impact she had on our communities is immeasurable and will continue to be felt for years to come. Our community has lost a true hero today, but she will not soon be forgotten.”
While undergoing treatment in 2015, Garner scurred to the Center for Civil and Human Rights to celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage, accompanied by her wife Fulton County State Court Judge Jane Morrison. At the rally, Garner joined hands with her wife Jane and said, “Today in the great state of Georgia we are recognized as legal wife and wife!”
The two were married in Massachusetts five years prior.
In 2011, Garner thanked her wife, sisters, and mother while swearing into the Fulton County Commission. She quoted Maya Angelou, one of her favorite poets, who wrote, “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.”
Garner later noted, “This inaugural ceremony, for me, is the realization of a life-long quest of inclusion. For as long back as I can remember, I have dared to dream to make government work for the people– for all of the people.”
Over her lifetime, Garner championed awareness for HIV/AIDS, stood up for preserving the Historic Fourth Ward district, was chairperson for Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) M., served on the board of Sweet Auburn Inc., and much more.
Her voice, strength, and dedication to equity will not be forgotten.
Among her, we also remember recent losses of great lesbian leaders like Chef Ria Pell, beloved owner of Ria’s Bluebird, and Catherine Han Montoya, former director of field immigration and capacity-building initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, and was also co-chair of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Joan P. Garner Health & Human Services Internship Program, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) Civic Affairs Foundation, 191 Peachtree Street, N.E., Suite 700, Atlanta, 30303.
Memorial Service: Saturday May 6th, 3:00 pm, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Auburn Avenue, Atlanta (street address 101 Jackson Street, NE). Reception to follow, location TBD.
Chelsea Hoag is one of the founding members of Rotten Peaches, a solid space for queer women in Atlanta to dance, party, network, and be themselves.