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Former city council member vindicated by court

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Michelle Bruce, a former Riverdale city council member, whose gender was called into question during the Nov. 2007 city elections, received vindication after a protracted legal battle.

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Bruce -- who served one term on the council, from 2003-2007 -- did not lie about her gender to voters. The ruling came nearly a year after Bruce's failed bid for re-election.

Bruce, who says she is an hermaphrodite, identifies and lives as a woman. In a joint lawsuit filed by Stan Harris and Georgia Fuller -- who both ran unsuccessfully for positions on the city council -- Harris and Fuller contended that Bruce misled voters into believing she is a woman.

Harris' and Fuller's lawyer, Michael King -- who was recently elected to serve on the Clayton County Board of Education -- argued that the assumption of Bruce being a woman gave her an unfair advantage among Riverdale voters.

Supreme Court Justice Hugh Thompson found "no evidence of fraud, misconduct, irregularity or illegality," and the court ruled that, "Elections cannot be overturned on the basis of mere speculation."

Although Bruce ultimately lost the election to current council member Wayne Hall, Bruce said the ruling is a "triumph" for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.

"This is a great win for the LGBT community to have equality," said Bruce. "Gender has nothing to do with someone's capability of doing their job as an elected official. This shows that the court clearly saw that."

Bruce said that during her four years on the city council, she had perfect meeting attendance and was the only council member who, at the time, had successfully completed her certification with the Georgia Municipal Association. She believes Harris, Fuller, and King attacked her on the basis of gender identity "in order to gain political control of the Riverdale City Council.

"They attacked me on that because they could not attack me on my record," said Bruce. "I'm glad the court saw the merit of the case and saw that it was politically and racially motivated."

Bruce believes the spectacle generated by the lawsuit ultimately cost her the election. Harris -- who ran against and lost to Councilman Kenny Ruffin in the Nov. 2007 election -- contended that Bruce lied about her gender and that voters made their decision based on her alleged deceit.

"The court has heard the evidence and made their ruling," said Harris. "I have a different perspective on it. I think that she deceived the people."

Harris doesn't believe the lawsuit played a part in Bruce's defeat, but added, "She's out of office and that's what really counts in the long run.

"The court made their decision and the people made theirs," said Harris. "If she believes the lawsuit hindered her chances in the election, then, maybe, she wasn't as strong as she thought she was. The people would have voted for her, and not Wayne Hall."

Bruce said she may eventually pursue legal action against Harris, Fuller, and King. However, she said she believes the court's ruling sets a nationwide precedent for LGBT elected officials, which may encourage more to seek political office.

"It was just a total shame that someone had to attack me in this way," said Bruce. "It shows that more education needs to be done. When we can get over bigotry ... all of our lives can improve."