Gay lawmaker, HIV activist Sam Park

Sam Park, an advocate for people living with HIV and better health care for all, is in many ways the new face of Georgia.

He is a homosexual of Korean descent – the first homosexual to come out and the first Asian-American Democrat elected to the Georgia legislature, where he fights to expand the availability of Medicaid and modernize the state’s HIV law. . He is also an attorney for Positive Impact Health Centers, a nonprofit organization that provides HIV treatment and prevention services to thousands of people in hard-hit counties around Atlanta. In November, the 35-year-old was elected to his third term in the Georgia House of Representatives in a suburban Atlanta district in Gwinnett County.

In August, he was one of three politicians to participate in the virtual opening speech at the Democratic National Convention – the first members of the LGBTQ + community to appear in an opening slot at such an event. He was also on the board of directors of Out for Biden, an initiative to mobilize LGBTQ + voters to support the Democratic candidate. He has worked with several prominent Georgian MPs, such as Stacey Abrams, former state member and candidate for governor, and Jon Ossoff, current candidate for the US Senate.

Park was motivated to enter politics because of her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2014. With insurance coverage from Medicaid and Medicare, she received treatment that allowed her to spend her final years in a hospital. relative comfort and seeing his son elected to the legislature in 2016. The experience, says Park, “has taught me that health care is about life and death.”

In her first election, Park defeated incumbent Republican Valerie Clark, who had resisted the expansion of Medicaid in the state and also voted for a so-called religious freedom bill that would have allowed discrimination against LGBTQ + people; then-Govt. Nathan Deal ended up vetoing the measure. He beat Clark again in 2018, by a bigger margin than the first time, and in 2020 he easily beat another conservative Republican, Carol Field.

Park is still trying to get the state to embrace the expansion of Medicaid, which he calls his number one problem. Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health insurance to certain low-income or disabled people; part of the Affordable Care Act allows states to offer Medicaid to anyone below a certain income level, so that it would be much more widely available. Georgia is one of 12 states that have not opted, although the impact on state budgets has been shown to be minimal. Georgia has the second-highest proportion of uninsured people in the country and the expansion of Medicaid would go a long way in addressing that issue, Park said.

Another of its priorities is to modernize Georgia’s HIV law, which criminalizes the act of a person living with HIV having consensual sex, donating blood or sharing needles without disclosing their status, as well as criminalizing various other acts by those who are positive – including spitting. A reform bill that provides penalties only if there is an intention to transmit HIV and reflects modern science regarding the risk of transmission was overwhelmingly passed by Georgia House with bipartisan support in early 2020 , but the state Senate ran out of time to review it before shutting down for the COVID -19 crisis. Still, voting in the House “gave me a lot of hope,” Park says, and he will try again in the next session.

In her other job, her main task is to ensure that Positive Impact complies with all laws regarding its government funding. A key part of this is the federal government’s 340B drug pricing program, which allows some health care providers to purchase drugs at greatly reduced prices and also generates revenue for the providers. It’s a useful source of funds for expanding staff and services, Park says.

Park, who is HIV negative himself, has been with Positive Impact for two years. He first became involved with the group when asked to join the board, and now taking care of his legal work has turned into a full-time job. The organization has clinics in Duluth, Decatur and Marietta, each in a county considered to be an HIV hotspot, with rates comparable to those in third world countries, Park says. Georgia as a whole has one of the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses in the country.

Park is a graduate of Georgia State University and its law school, and he also holds a Master of Laws degree from American University Washington College of Law. He attended a Christian elementary school, then public schools, and he says faith always shapes his point of view. When he came out as a teenager, there were struggles with some Conservative family and friends, but things finally got better. However, some of his family in California and New York only learned that he was gay through news reports when he first ran for office in 2016. But it also happened. fine.

“When all was said and done, they were able to see beyond the stigma. … They just saw me for who I was, ”he said.

He is fighting for progressive measures in a deeply conservative state, where Republicans control the government and both houses of the legislature. Still, he said, “I remain optimistic and excited.” And there are signs that things are changing. Joe Biden brought Georgia into the Democratic column in the presidential election, and Park is “incredibly ecstatic” about it, he says. “My celebration is also tempered by the reality we face,” he adds, citing the pandemic and the economic challenges.

“The best thing we can do is send two Democratic senators to Washington, DC,” Park said. On Wednesday, Park got his wish as Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were declared the winners of both races in the Georgia Senate.

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