As Colton Southworth hung up the phone after the short call that came to an abrupt end, he was stunned, nearly speechless from what he had just heard.
He had been on a call with the owner of a landscape and design company that he was considering hiring to take on a big landscaping project. He had recently moved to the Atlanta area into a beautiful home and wanted to expand the backyard, create an edible garden, and turn it all into a calming and tranquil garden. He barely started describing the project and what he envisioned when the owner of the landscaping project asked Colton directly if the job was for himself and his wife.
Colton hesitated a bit, unsure of the significance of the question, then explained that no, the backyard belonged to Colton and his husband. The tone of the phone call changed rapidly as the business owner concluded that he was not interested in working with Colton and his husband. And then the two hung up.
“This was the first time that myself and my partner were explicitly discriminated against based on our relationship,” Colton explained. “I’ve been called slurs when I was younger, but I generally have been in inclusive environments and I haven’t faced discrimination like this before.”
More taken aback than angry, he found the landscaping company on Yelp, a social media platform that aggregates reviews and information about businesses and restaurants, writing, “Contacted today about a very large project in Sandy Springs. The owner asked if the work was for me and my wife, I said no me and my husband and he replied that he wouldn’t be interested in working with us.”
The conflict didn’t end there: Shortly after the business owner replied to Colton’s comment, writing, “Yes, this is an accurate description of what happened. Large landscaping projects take several months. I can’t do that, all while going along with the delusion of two men calling themselves a married couple. … It’s very perverse and foolish.” Later, the owner commented on his personal Facebook page, “I average about one or two calls per year from sodomites or lesbians. I always turn them down.”
Discrimination like this against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people occurs all too often in Georgia and 30 other states without comprehensive and explicit state-level nondiscrimination protections that cover LGBTQ Americans. In Georgia, no state-level civil rights protections exist at all.
LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination in the city of Atlanta – but as Colton’s story illustrates, those protections end as soon as you leave the city limits. Since Colton lives in Sandy Springs, he was not protected from anti-LGBTQ discrimination like what he experienced.
“Everyone is entitled to their own freedom of speech,” Colton said. “But the magnitude of his expression made me want to speak out about this experience.” That is, Colton believes, everyone should be able to think whatever they want and believe whatever they want – but when it comes to opening a business and putting your work on the public marketplace, you have to ensure that your business is open to all.
“It makes you feel like you’re being taken advantage of,” Colton said. “I’m a contributing member of society, I pay my taxes, I volunteer, and my neighbors in different-sex relationships do the same things and have kids. They can go into any business and presumably not be discriminated against based on who they are in a relationship with.”
Recent years have seen a national conversation develop about a small number of businesses that want a license to discriminate – the ability to unilaterally deny service or refuse care to LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, just because of who they are. In Georgia, lawmakers have pushed discriminatory legislation for years, with one bill even making it to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk before being vetoed. In his speech about vetoing the legislation, Gov. Deal cited his strong Christian faith and his interest in ensuring that Georgians treat each other like they would like to be treated.
The issue also played a role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017-2018 term, when the Justices ruled in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, ultimately deciding the civil rights commission erred in its handling of the case but underlining LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination and the importance of ensuring that businesses are open to all.
Sometimes, opponents of LGBTQ dignity and equality point to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and others like it to dismiss LGBTQ people’s concerns about discrimination in businesses and other public spaces, arguing that this discrimination is solely related to weddings between same-sex couples. Colton’s story and experience with the landscaping business, and many stories like his, shows that that’s not true – that granting businesses a license to discriminate wouldn’t just impact wedding-related businesses but also industries like landscaping. LGBTQ people could be turned away from basic services solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Colton and his partner have been together for five years. They met when they lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the same neighborhood. They moved to the Atlanta area in the summer of 2018, and now Colton manages an indoor cycling studio.
The couple is working to move on from their brush with discrimination, but it was important to them to speak out and showcase for their community members that discrimination is real and that it comes in many forms, even ugly forms like what Colton experienced. The men are going to continue working toward a stronger community, and they’ll keep speaking out for basic dignity and equality, not just for LGBTQ people but for all people.
“It’s important to me to share this because I am a white male, and that’s typically not someone who seems to be discriminated against, and it made me reflect on anyone in the world who is discriminated against by the way they look, the way they speak, where they’re from, if they have physical disabilities,” Colton said. “It made me reflect on how speaking out and sharing my story could be impactful for other people. This is more than just about LGBT people. It’s about equality for all.”