“I am a Georgia girl raised on grits,” Representative Park Cannon of the Georgia House tells me over the phone. “You know the acronym for GRITS? Girls Raised In The South, and I am so proud to be here in my home state making a difference.”
Representative Cannon is not your average state legislature in the South. Elected at age 24 in 2016, she remains the youngest lawmaker in the state of Georgia; she’s pro-choice, and uses her identity as a queer black woman to inform her policy making.
When Simone Bell, former Representative of Georgia’s District 58 and the first African-American lesbian to serve openly in a U.S. state legislature, resigned from the Georgia House, she personally called Cannon to ask that she run in her place. “It was the best phone call of my life!” says Rep. Cannon. “The first emotion that I felt without any pause was happiness. I knew that I would be able to bring a new joy, a new invigoration to our district.”
Since heeding that call, Rep. Cannon has won two elections, and she’s on her way to win a third. The day before she spoke to Broadly, she won her re-election primary, which means she’ll be running in Georgia’s general election in November unopposed.
Despite her political success, she still shuns the “politician” label. “What I think is more reflective of the type of democracy that I am proud to be a part of is an activist elected official. That is who I am... As an activist elected official, I walk into this room and into this world seeing how we can bridge our communities to our government a little bit better, and I think that’s exactly where I should be.”
As a queer, Black activist who has faced homelessness, Rep. Cannon understands that being an elected officials means being the representative of various marginalized communities. She explains that every aspect of her identity has a tangible effect on her policy making:
Anyone could say it doesn’t matter that you have locked hair, no one cares. It certainly does matter when we are legislating what types of chemicals can go into hair products in Georgia. People always say to me oh it doesn’t matter that you’re part of the LGBTQ community, but in fact we are looking at our HIV diagnosis skyrocketing in the city of Atlanta, we must have targeted focus groups that include people living with HIV and making sure that they are at the solutions table. When we talk about it might not matter that I was homeless while I was in college, I argue that it absolutely does. The city of Atlanta has the largest shelter in the Southeast. People are bussed here in order to make a new life in our homeless shelter, and we make the policies about that.
In 2017, Rep. Cannon sponsored a bill to help combat Atlanta’s astoundingly high HIV infection rate. The legislation, which passed in March of last year, requires any facility that provides HIV testing to present patients with the full range of their medical options along with their results. For example, doctors of patients who test negative for HIV are required to present both PrEP and PEP as an option to remain HIV negative. Along with combating HIV rates, keeping housing and healthcare accessible and affordable, and ensuring that Georgia’s public schools receive the funding they need are top priorities for Rep. Cannon as she looks towards what will likely be another term in office.
On the list of organizations that have chosen to sponsor Rep. Cannon (one that’s full of LGBTQ and feminist groups) is NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s most famous pro-choice group after Planned Parenthood. Rep Cannon says that despite running in the typically conservative South, she refuses to compromise on her long-held belief that everyone has the right to the full scope of their reproductive health options. “As much as I love grits and I’m a girl raised in the South, I’m also a pro-choice peach,” she explains. “I love me some sweet reproductive justice. My first internship in college was at NARAL.” In the Georgia House, Rep. Cannon says she works to “make it very clear that we will not go back to the time when families are putting an opportunity to move their lives forward and to have healthy pregnancies behind the laws that trap them, behind the circumstances that people are facing, and behind the absolute political nature that is determining a person’s right to choose right now.”
Still, despite the fact that Georgia is a historically red state, Rep. Cannon says she wouldn’t want to legislate anywhere else. She lists some of the “crown jewels” of District 58: the capitol building, a trauma center that provides care to anyone who needs help whether they can pay or not, and the fact that it is where Dr. King was born, raised, and is currently laid to rest.
She hopes to continue his legacy right where it all started. “We are right now in this political atmosphere standing on the shoulders of people who could not run with their full identities forward facing,” she says, “and I am proud to be as out, flamboyant, and fierce as possible at this time.”