The queer black millennial who plans to shake up Georgia politics

Story highlights

Park Cannon is the Georgia representative for District 58

Cannon is a 24-year-old black woman who identifies as queer

Cannon hopes to represent groups that are underrepresented in Georgia's conservative legislature

CNN  — 

One day this month, for the first time in her scant four weeks as a state representative, Park Cannon used her microphone in the chamber of the Georgia House of Representatives to ask a question.

It concerned Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill, a piece of legislation that she said would lead to discrimination against gay and transgender people.

“Wouldn’t it be true that if this bill is passed, as amended, that in a domestic violence situation, in a same-sex couple, that person could be denied care?” Cannon asked on March 16.

“And of course, their answer was yes,” she said in an interview.

That night, the Georgia General Assembly passed the bill, leaving its fate to Gov. Nathan Deal, who announced Monday that he will veto it.

Corporations including Disney, 20th Century Fox and Time Warner (CNN’s parent company) had urged Deal to veto the legislation. Some even threatened to take their business out of state if the bill became law.

But financial concerns aside, Cannon focused on the human toll of the religious liberty bill. It’s legislation like this, she said, that spurred her bid for office.

A different point of view

Cannon is young. She is a black woman. She is queer.

That’s what Democratic Rep. Karla Drenner said makes Cannon’s perspective special to the Georgia Democratic caucus.

“She definitely looks at the world differently than most members,” said Drenner, who is also an openly gay lawmaker. “The difference is that she identifies with the word ‘queer.’ I think that’s generated some discussion because a lot of members have no clue what ‘Q’ means.”

Cannon, 24, said she made the decision to identify as queer because it’s an inclusive descriptor. The term, which can represent gay, lesbian, asexual, intersex and transgender people, among others, used to be a derogatory one, but Cannon and others are reclaiming it.

“I think ‘queer’ is a term like other terms that is evolving even within my community, on my street, in the neighborhood. There are just different portrayals of it,” she said.

Cannon was sworn in February 22 after winning a runoff vote for the District 58 seat.

She hopes to represent a mixed group of voices who feel underrepresented: women, African-Americans, young people, intersex people, lesbians, asexual people, transgender people.

“It doesn’t get us anywhere to cut people down,” she said. “I do think that there is the importance of speaking about (identity) but not detract from the rest of the issues.”

Cannon is one of three openly gay lawmakers in the Georgia House and its youngest.

Through her work with social justice nonprofits and women’s health clinics, she has advocated for women’s reproductive rights and access to public education. She pulls from her own experiences to try to change how decisions are made in the state’s conservative legislature.

Along the way, she’s becoming a role model, said Deborah Scott, her mentor and executive director of Georgia Stand Up, a social justice organization where Cannon interned in 2014.

“She’s fighting for minimum wage, affordable health care,” Scott said. “These are issues that are affecting not just Georgia but women everywhere. It’s nice to know that there is someone in our younger generation that is championing for women’s rights.”

With 60 Democrats, 118 Republicans and one independent in the state House, conservative voices are loud, especially the night H.B. 757 passed.

Read H.B. 757, the Free Exercise Protection Act (PDF)

“They double our voices, which is not a happy feeling,” Cannon said.

She points to the wall in the House chamber that shows the names of the representatives and how they vote.

“Seeing the names that were intentionally allowing the state to discriminate against people – I mean, an entire class of people. We have not restricted rights for people since Jim Crow. I just really hope that the people who voted that way are clear about what they did,” Cannon said. “I truly felt like it was a day of violence.”

Not just a small-town girl

Cannon doesn’t see her upbringing any differently from those of her peers.

She grew up on a military base in Albany, Georgia; her father was a Vietnam veteran and her mother a pharmaceutical representative.

Cannon majored in linguistics and minored in women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which has helped with her role as a representative.

“It’s all about communicating with others, whether it’s during language acquisition or just verbal communication,” Cannon said. “We have to do a lot of that down here at the Capitol.”

Before North Carolina, Cannon experienced firsthand how powerful words can be.

She initially enrolled at Chapman University in California. At one point during her first few weeks, Cannon heard furious knocking on her dorm room door. When she opened it, the word “n*****” was written all over it, she said.

She confronted the two people who she believed did it and filed a report with the university. After the complaint was addressed, Cannon moved back home to Georgia.

“It wasn’t the social climate I was hoping for,” Cannon said.

That experience catalyzed her interest in the treatment of different groups of people. So when Cannon reads bills about asserting English as the language of the state, she thinks about the message it might send: that Georgia is unwelcoming to people who don’t speak English.

“I definitely want to be a part of the welcoming party,” Cannon said.

A day at the Capitol

Before she leaves her house in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward each morning, Cannon always makes time to do yoga, even if it’s for five minutes.

She starts her workday before 10 a.m., checking emails and meeting with her fellow Democrats before hearing legislation in the House until 2 p.m.

Meeting visitors at the Capitol makes the day go by faster, and many young people gravitate to her.

On March 17, Cannon walked into the Capitol and ran into a group of Westchester Elementary School students. Instantly, the children circled her, excited to meet a lawmaker.

“Does anyone have a question for a representative?” Cannon asked the group.

The students’ hands shot up. They wanted to know what the job is like.

“I have to read a lot. It’s a lot of different words that I don’t always know. So I have to ask people to help me,” Cannon said.

“Why did you run for office?” a student asked.

“I was really sad about the things that were happening in the environment, in my community, so I decided to make a change,” Cannon replied.

Drenner notes that the things that set Cannon apart go beyond being black and queer. Most lawmakers are baby boomers, while Cannon is a millennial who speaks openly on issues that her older colleagues may be more reserved about.

Still, Cannon appears cautious as she consults with her fellow caucus members to ensure that she is leaving the right impression with people outside the legislature.

“She’s the new kid on the block, so she’s just finding her way around with the various members,” Drenner said.

The religious freedom bill may have been the first occasion Cannon used her microphone to speak on a controversial bill, but she said it won’t be the last. She feels strongly about affordable housing, environmental awareness and abortion rights.

“We have had an increase in anti-choice legislation over the years, and it has been coming from the South,” Cannon said. “It has been coming from places where I live, where I want to protect.”