1st openly gay Alabama lawmaker bows out to standing ovation

Alabama Legislature on Flipboard
Jymie Jimerson collects Willie Nelson memorabilia in her home in remembrance of her late husband, Steve, who was a fan.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s first openly gay legislator received a standing ovation as she bid farewell to the House of Representatives ahead of the last day of the legislative session Wednesday.

Democratic Rep. Patricia Todd of Birmingham will not seek re-election after serving 12 years. Todd said on the House floor Tuesday evening that her life had changed forever when she joined the Alabama legislature as its first openly gay member in 2006.

“You are incredible, beautiful people, some people I thought I would never get along with or never like,” Todd told fellow lawmakers.

She said that when she speaks to gay political candidates around the country, they always ask how she’s received in Alabama. She answers that she’s treated like anyone else.

Sen. Toni Atkins was sworn in Wednesday as the first woman and first openly gay Senate president pro tem in California history. Atkins accepted the gavel as the Senate leader from Kevin de Leon. She said that her early work will focus on running the Senate as efficiently as possible. In light of the #MeToo movement and sexual misconduct scandals that have rocked the State Capitol, Atkins said one of her priorities is to develop a process to fight sexual harassment and to punish any lawmakers involved.

Media: KCRA

“You walked into this institution that’s never had anybody like you. It’s Alabama. I was prepared for the worst. But you know, I’ve never heard anybody make any crude remark. Everybody’s always been very respectful,” Todd told the Associated Press.

Todd was married twice while a House member, first in Massachusetts in early 2015 and then, following a divorce, in Alabama in late 2016 after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Her second marriage came two months after Roy Moore, then chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was suspended for ordering probate judges to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Todd said Moore’s order didn’t affect her because judges in Jefferson County where she lived supported same-sex marriage. She said that although Moore had supporters in the Alabama legislature, gay marriage was never a point of debate after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Moore lost Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election in December 2017.

Todd, one of few white Democrats in the GOP-dominated House, helped pass a law to allow marijuana-derived medication for treating severe seizures and expanded its use to more patients two years later.

More often than not though, Todd’s bills failed. She unsuccessfully pushed her colleagues to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, legalize medical marijuana and add sexual orientation as a protected category under the state’s hate crime law.

On the latter point, she said, “I’d hoped to make progress on that. But Alabama’s not ready.”

But she said she fought against what she called discriminatory bills that came through the chamber, adding, “I haven’t passed many bills, but I haven’t let things happen.”

She wished she could have stopped a 2017 law that allowed faith-based adoption organizations to refuse to place children with gay parents or other households because of their religious beliefs.

Todd, whose background is in activism, said she’s taking away future lessons from her legislative experience.

“What I learned is how to actively listen and try to understand their reasoning behind their positions and to be respectful and I think that makes me a better activist,” she said.

“I hope I opened up some hearts and minds,” Todd told her fellow lawmakers Tuesday evening. “I won’t be the last. There will be other openly gay folks that join this chamber.”

She is supporting two other openly gay candidates running for the Alabama Legislature in 2018. Neil Rafferty, a gay former Marine who works with Birmingham AIDS Outreach, is one of three Democrats who are running for Todd’s seat. Todd is also supporting gay Democratic businesswoman Felicia Stewart, who is running against incumbent Rep. David Faulkner, a Republican, in one of the state’s wealthiest suburbs.

A native of Kentucky, Todd has lived in Alabama since 1984. She said she has her eye on a few job opportunities after the session including possibly as the executive director of an advocacy organization formed in Orlando, Florida, after the Pulse gay nightclub shooting.

Todd said she chose not to attend the last day of the session Wednesday because she is “terrible at saying goodbye.”

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