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Georgia's Other Political Hero: Gay Legislator, HIV Activist Sam Park

Park

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

He’s a gay man of Korean descent — the first out gay man and first Asian-American Democrat elected to the Georgia legislature, where he’s fighting to expand Medicaid availability 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 for 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 from a suburban Atlanta district in Gwinnett County.

In August, he was one of three out politicians who participated in the virtual keynote address at the Democratic National Convention — the first members of the LGBTQ+ community to appear in a keynote slot at such an event. He was also on the steering committee for Out for Biden, an initiative aimed at mobilizing LGBTQ+ voters to support the Democratic nominee. He’s worked with several prominent Georgia Dems, such as Stacey Abrams, a former state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate, and Jon Ossoff, a current candidate for U.S. Senate.

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

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

Park is still trying to get the state to adopt Medicaid expansion, which he calls his number 1 issue. Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health insurance for certain people with low incomes or disabilities; a part of the Affordable Care Act allows states to offer Medicaid to all people below a certain income level, so it would be far more widely available. Georgia is one of only 12 states that have not opted in, even though it’s been demonstrated that the impact on state budgets is minimal. Georgia has the second-highest proportion of uninsured people in the nation and expanding Medicaid would go a long way toward addressing that, Park says.

Another of his priorities is modernizing Georgia’s HIV law, which makes it a felony for an HIV-positive person to have consensual sex, donate blood, or share needles without disclosure of their status, along with criminalizing a variety of other acts by those who are positive — including spitting. A reform bill that provides for penalties only if there’s intent to transmit HIV and reflects modern science regarding transmission risk passed the Georgia House overwhelmingly with bipartisan support early in 2020, but the state Senate ran out of time to consider it before shutting down for the COVID-19 crisis. Still, the House vote “gave me a lot of hope,” Park says, and he’ll try again in the upcoming session.

In his other job, his primary task is assuring that Positive Impact follows all the laws regarding its government funding. A key component of that is the federal government’s 340B Drug Pricing Program, which allows certain health care providers to buy drugs at deeply discounted prices and also generates income for the providers. It’s a useful source of funds to expand staff and services, Park says.

Park, who is himself HIV-negative, has been with Positive Impact for two years. He first became involved with the group when he was asked to join the board, and now handling its legal work has become a full-time job. The organization has clinics in Duluth, Decatur, and Marietta, each in a county that’s considered a hot spot for HIV, with rates comparable to those of Third World countries, Park says. Georgia as a whole has one of the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses in the nation.

Park is a graduate of Georgia State University and its law school, and he also has a master’s in law from American University Washington College of Law. He attended a Christian elementary school and then public schools, and he says faith still shapes his outlook. When he came out in his teens, there were difficulties with some conservative family members and friends, but the situation eventually got better. Some relatives in California and New York, however, only learned he was gay from news articles when he first ran for office in 2016. But that turned out all right too.

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

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

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

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