U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Georgia football legend Herschel Walker are locked in a tight race for one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats. Libertarian Chase Oliver is polling in the single digits but could very well throw the race to a December runoff.
With the Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, the winner of this seat could determine the fate of legislation affecting LGBTQ Americans for years to come.
If high LGBTQ turnout is what makes the difference, Warnock — who calls himself a “pro-LGBTQ+ pastor” — stands to benefit the most.
“I have long been an ally of the LGBTQIA community, and my alliance and support for the dignity of my sisters and brothers emerges from my faith and my bedrock conviction that each of us was created in the image of God,” he told WABE. “Therefore, we have dignity. And that dignity ought to be honored in our public policy and in our lives together.”
Walker on the other hand has amped up his attacks on transgender people in particular as Election Day nears. He held a campaign event in late September focused on his opposition to transgender athletes and has made “keeping men out of women’s sports” a regular line in his stump speech.
“They’re trying to tell you right now that this is normal. But I’m here to tell you this is not normal,” Walker said to supporters. He took things a step further by directing a message to transgender children that “Jesus may not recognize” them when they get to heaven.
“The people of Georgia are busy trying to claw their way back from a pandemic, to strengthen their families and their future,” Warnock said when asked about Walker’s comments. “And he wants us to believe that our biggest enemy is our children. I think that’s shameful and it is out of touch with Georgians.”
At another campaign event earlier this month, Walker blasted the prospect of transgender people serving in the military. And on Monday, Walker joined U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for a campaign event in North Georgia. Greene routinely mocks transgender people and sponsored legislation that would ban trans kids from school sports.
“[Walker is] on a Georgia tour waging war against trans people,” Warnock said.
Walker’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Same-sex marriage back in the conversation
An issue that has re-emerged in the national debate this year is same-sex marriage. In his concurring opinion overturning Roe v. Wade in June, Justice Clarence Thomas said that the court “should reconsider” the decision that legalized same-sex marriage, practically inviting anyone to bring a case before the court.
That put the issue back into play, especially in Georgia, where a same-sex marriage ban is still part of state law and would go back into effect if the Supreme Court overturns its 2015 decision.
Congress subsequently got to work on protecting same-sex marriages at the federal level with the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act. The House passed the measure in July with bipartisan support, which Warnock celebrated.
“Some things are bigger than partisan politics,” he tweeted. “Let’s prove love is one of those things.”
The bill has languished in the Senate since then due to a lack of Republican support.
Walker has been asked repeatedly whether he supports same-sex marriage and if he would support the Respect for Marriage Act if elected to the Senate. He has refused to answer.
But he did signal his intentions in a somewhat muddled way when asked if he would “stop the gay weddings” at a rally in Columbus in May.
“Gay weddings is something that you have to work with the Congress,” Walker said. “I think each state gotta determine that. Not yet, but that’s against stuff that I believe in. So that each state can just stop all that.”
His campaign later tried to walk back the comments.
“A clear choice”?
Warnock supports the Equality Act, a federal measure that would prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. The bill was first introduced in 2015 and has failed to pass in each of the last four sessions of Congress. Warnock said he is committed to fighting for the measure in the next session, which starts in January.
Warnock said his support for the Equality Act is one of the reasons voters have “a clear choice” between him and Walker.
“He is literally crisscrossing our state, waging war against members of the LGBTQ community,” Warnock said. “He’s trying to divide us, I’m trying to bring us together. I understand that Dr. King was right. That whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. If the humanity of some based on orientation or identity is denied, my humanity is in some ways undermined as well.”
As a pastor, Warnock has fought what he calls “the unholy trinity of silence, stigma and shame” around HIV, which disproportionately affects Black gay and bisexual men. He also ran HIV testing campaigns urging people to know their status. Georgia has the highest rate of new HIV infections of any state in the U.S.
During his first campaign for Senate, Warnock vowed to continue fighting HIV if elected. To that end, in July he and Sen. Jon Ossoff helped secure nearly $4 million in federal funding to fight the virus in metro Atlanta.
“I believe that health care is a human right and it is certainly something that the wealthiest nation on the planet can and ought to provide for all of its citizens, including those who are HIV-positive,” he said.
It’s unclear what Walker’s views are on fighting the HIV epidemic.
Walker has an openly gay son, the conservative social media influencer Christian Walker. He publicly supported his father’s campaign early on, then fell mostly silent about it until earlier this month. The younger Walker accused his father of lying about his past and being an absent father after he denied a report that he paid for an abortion in 2009.