Allen Thornell, Presente! 1970-2009
(APN) ATLANTA — Allen Thornell, 38, was a progressive activist, lobbyist, politician, and media consultant who worked with groups like Georgia Equality, Atlanta Stonewall Democrats, and the AIDS Survival Project. He passed away August 03, 2009, suddenly, from a stroke. Although Thornell had a history of heart problems, he seemed perfectly healthy at the time.
Thornell served as Board Co-Chair of Georgia Equality from 2000 to 2002, then as Executive Director from 2002 to 2004. He then served again as Board Chair until the time he passed away. He served as Political Director for a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union from 2004 to 2006.
Thornell ran for State House in 2006 for the seat being vacated that year by current State Sen. Nan Orrock, when she ran for the first time for her State Senate seat. Thornell went into a runoff with Robin Shipp, and lost by a slim margin. If he had won, he would have been the first openly homosexual male in the legislature.
Thornell was in a relationship with Chad Prosser.
Shipp retired this year after just one term, but Thornell had decided not to run again. In the meantime, he had worked as a media consultant for Talking Heads Media and as a strategist for the international non-profit, CARE.
His friends and colleagues remembered Thornell for his political insight and multi-issue platform, as well as his kind-heartedness and sense of humor.
“I met Allen in 2005… I loved him from the minute I met him. We laughed about the same things. We had the same sensibilities when it came to other people in politics. I just thought he was a gem, a real gem, and he will be sadly, sadly missed,” activist Juliana Illari told Atlanta Progressive News.
“He worked in an amazing variety of groups and varieties of people. It’s a very big loss for a lot of political communities… they counted on Allen and his bits of knowledge about things and his willingness to offer his time and expertise,” Illari said.
Thornell was also HIV positive and made advocacy about HIV-related issues a big part of his platform.
“He was open about that. It was something that, because it wasn’t a secret, it wasn’t that well known, if that makes any sense. It wasn’t a hush hush whisper kind of thing. Allen was so vital and present at so many things, to us he was a real survivor,” Illari said.
“It would’ve been an interesting dynamic to see him gain that seat. Had he won, he would’ve brought a very interesting perspective to a lot of discussions at the Georgia legislature. I think about what kind of conversations could’ve been had about health care and employment and discrimination,” Illari said.
“I know that he was a very avid traveler, and I was always incredibly jealous of the places he was going to,” Illari added. “Allen and Chad always seemed to be going off to somewhere fabulous. He had a lot of good friends,” Illari said.
Kyle Bailey, an Atlanta activist who was recently named interim director of the National Stonewall Democrats, called Thornell a mentor.
“He became a mentor of mine. He made a big contribution… to those of us who are progressives in Atlanta. There’s one less person doing this work and his shoes are pretty big to fill,” Bailey told APN.
“He was hardworking, motivated, and passionate,” Bailey said. “To his core, he believed in what he was doing. Every day he woke up with a sense of giving back to the community [because of his] moral principles. He lived a life of purpose and meaning.”
“He just led our community. He was a very smart political strategist and grassroots organizer. He understood what it meant to win coalitions, and to pass legislation. He was smart about politics,” Bailey said.
A MULTI-ISSUE PLATFORM
Thornell may be best well-known for his activism around lgbt issues, particularly his work opposing an amendment banning same-sex marriage in Georgia in 2004.
However, those who work with him say he was an all-around progressive activist, who also served as Political Director for a local chapter of the SEIU.
“I’ve known Allen for probably a little over 14 years,” Jeff Graham, Executive Director of Georgia Equality, told APN. “I’ve served as Executive Director for the last year and a half, while he’s been Board Chair.”
“One of my previous jobs, was Executive Director at the AIDS Survival Project, where I first met Allen… shortly after he had come to town,” Graham said, adding Thornell is from Utah.
“He was just an incredible person. From a political point of view, he was incredibly intelligent, very politically savvy. He had what I think is an ideal mix of idealism and pragmatism. He certainly understood some of the challenges of working within the political system in a state like Georgia. Yet, he really had a strong commitment towards social justice and a very broad vision of equality,” Graham said.
“He certainly understood, while he was known primarily as an LGBT rights activist, he actually had great understanding of the need to have a strong and progressive labor movement. He understood the importance of advocating for a fair health care system. He saw interconnections of sexual orientation, gender, race, and class. He really was one of those unique political minds; he felt comfortable working within the political system and could support, appreciate grassroots activism as well,” Graham said.
“He was incredibly funny, he had a wonderful sense of humor. I think… what most of us who worked closely with him will remember and will miss, is that sense of humor. He was also a very caring and compassionate individual. He could be about business and understood so often times doing this work requires looking out for other people, to watch their back, and the importance sometimes of just taking time for yourself,” Graham said.
“Part of what attracted me to Georgia Equality was knowing that I would be able to work with Allen,” Graham said.
“He was a personal friend, I was shocked,” State Sen. Curt Thompson told APN. “He was young, he was healthy. It does sort of remind you of your mortality; when God wants you, he wants you. Obviously, it’s sort of a reminder no one is so young to be immortal.”
“I thought he was a truly good human being. He was someone who truly cared about his community. Certainly he was a great person to have worked with at SEIU on issues ranging from labor issues–of course that’s what you work on at SEIU–to lobbying of course on glbt issues,” Thompson said.
“In every instance, he was top notch, incredibly professional, and he believed in what he was doing,” Thompson said.
“He handled our screening process for candidates in the 2006 election cycle. We endorsed separately from other labor organizations. He basically helped us select our candidates, make contributions, and decide what we were going to do from statewide races all the way down the ballot. He helped identify and recruit campaigns,” Thompson said.
“He also went down to the Capitol and lobbied, trying to get an employee representative on the pension board, for unemployement benefits, things like that,” Thompson said.
ANTI-SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AMENDMENT
In 2004, Georgia was one of the first few states that had anti-same-sex marriage amendments on their ballots.
“Even though we already had anti-gay marriage state law, they wanted to make a constitutional amendment out of it. For various reasons, one was to drive their voters to the ballot as well, it was a nice motivational tool,” Illari said.
“Georgia has come a long way in progressive organizing, I know you and I would find that hard to believe,” Illari said. “So many people are involved now who weren’t involved 5 years ago. 2004 was real rocky with that, it was real rocky, it was hard, it was not an easy fight. On top of everything going on in 2004, we were redistricted.”
“The [national] money to fight Amendment 1 came through Georgia Equality, and at the time Allen was Executive Director. They were trying to gather up all community groups to get the word out about fighting Amendment 1,” Illari said.
The amendment passed overwhelmingly, although a Fulton County judge ruled it unconstitutional in 2006.
“We were trying to keep it off the ballot,” Illari said.
“This is where I think he shined as someone who was able to work well within the political system. The truth of the matter is, he won the first vote. It made it through the Senate and needed to make it through the House. He was able to block the first vote from the House,” Graham said.
“It was not until they brought it back 2 or 3 days later under an arcane rule of consideration that it passed by 2 or 3 votes,” Graham said.
“Allen gave his all to try and stop it there [in the legislature] because he knew that was one of his only chances to stop it, because the religious right was using this as a wedge issue in elections,” Graham said.
“He knew our best chances to keep this thing from seeing the light of day was to kill it through the legislative process and he was a master,” Graham said.
Thornell’s friends and colleagues have been posting comments, memories, and old photos of Thornell on his Facebook page. A memorial service will be held Thursday, August 06, 2009, at 230pm at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, 781 Peachtree St. NE.
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Matthew Cardinale, News Editor for Atlanta Progressive News, is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org
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