imageA bipartisan group of Georgia lawmakers, led by one of the General Assembly’s two openly gay members, fired the opening salvo in what’s expected to be a long slog to protect the state’s LGBT workers from being discriminated against on the job.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Karla Drenner introduced House Bill 630, a measure that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for state employees. It would bring the state in line with 13 of its municipalities that already offer some protections to gay employees.

Drenner, the bill’s lead sponsor, was joined by a coalition of co-signers that includes 57 Democrats, 12 Republicans and 1 Independent. That tally is just 21 shy of the votes it needs to pass out of the House. Co-sponsors include Rep. Simone Bell, the state House’s other openly gay member, and gay-friendly GOP Rep. Mike Jacobs.

“Treating LGBT employees fairly is simply better for business,” Drenner (top photo) says in a statement distributed Thursday by Georgia Equality. “The Georgia Fair Employment Practices legislation would also ensure that Georgia state colleges and universities are competitive with major research institutions in attracting and retaining the best and brightest researchers, students and administrators to study, work and develop new products, industries and jobs in Georgia.”

imageLittle action is expected on the proposal during the current session, which is scheduled to end in mid April. But introducing the bill so late in the legislative session was a strategic move, according to Jeff Graham (bottom photo), Georgia Equality’s executive director.

Supporters of the bill want to line up additional support this summer and fall to help build momentum ahead of the 2012 legislative session. They don’t expect a floor vote until next year at the earliest, he says.

“We are in the process of beginning a dialogue here in Georgia on employment protections and what is the role of state government to ensure that people are not discriminated against on the job,” Graham says in an interview with Project Q Atlanta.

“We are anticipating that as with most pieces of legislation, it will take more than one session to pass this bill. We do anticipate we will be working on this for several years. We need the entire community so we can have a statewide dialogue with our elected officials about why this is so important,” he adds.

Drenner’s proposal comes as Vandy Beth Glenn continues her legal fight against the state. Glenn, who is transgender, was fired from her job as editor and proofreader for the General Assembly in 2007. The dismissal came after Glenn announced plans to transition from male to female following a diagnosis that she suffered from Gender Identity Disorder. Glenn sued in July 2008 and last year, a federal judge ruled that the firing was illegal. The state appealed the ruling.

With a Gold Dome controlled by conservative Republicans – including Gov. Nathan Deal, who ran one of the most anti-gay campaigns political observers have seen in the state – the road to passage for the workplace bias bill isn’t clear. On Tuesday, Georgia Equality took a preemptive step and urged its members in the districts of co-sponsors to let their elected officials know “they have strong support on the issue from their constituents.”

But Graham points to a statewide poll of voters that shows 76 percent supporting adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of categories for which employees cannot be discriminated against. The support varies little across political or geographic groups, he says.

“We still have a lot to do to educate members, thank supporters and mobilize support on the Senate side,” Graham says in a statement to Georgia Equality supporters. “But we originally hoped for 50 sponsors and got 70, which gives us great momentum moving forward.”