Former Riverdale City Councilperson Michelle Bruce, Georgia’s first openly transgender elected official who lost reelection in 2003 after an opponent filed suit claiming she was “fraudulently” running for reelection as a woman, was found dead in her home on Roy Huie Road September 27. Although an official cause of death was not yet available as of press time, a member of the Clayton County Medical Examiner’s office on scene said Bruce appeared to have died of natural causes.
Bruce, 60, who the national LGBTQ news magazine The Advocate reported was born intersex but later identified as transgender, gained national press as a result of the suit. Bruce won on appeal, but lost reelection.
But her gender identity is not what locals remember most about her.
Former City Councilman An’cel Davis said he and his wife kept up with Bruce, who suffered from various ailments, dropping by with food from church and giving her a microwave.
“It is what it is,” Davis said of Bruce’s identity. “I’m not here to judge nobody. We had a good relationship…..[Bruce] always stood up for the little guy. Always stood up for what was right.”
According to Davis, Bruce was a Coast Guard veteran and had been to the VA in Alabama. Bruce’s mother, who used to live with her, died a few years ago. Posts on Facebook that appear to have been made by Bruce indicate she went to boot camp at Cape May in 1980 and had served on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Valiant (WMC 621) from 1980 to 1982. That year, the Department of Defense explicitly banned gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. It wasn’t until 2021 that transgender servicemembers were allowed to serve openly and that veterans discharged under other than honorable conditions for being LGBTQ could get full VA benefits.
A neighbor who saw the fire truck, police cars, and animal control vehicle outside Bruce’s home on Roy Huie, stopped to ask what had happened. Upon learning of Bruce’s passing, he said, “I see him [sic] on the front porch talking to his dogs. I haven’t seen him in a while.”
Reporter Tom Jones of WSB-TV showed up, visibly shaken. He said he had gotten to know Bruce over the years. “You get to know these people professionally, then you get to like them,” he said, adding that he and Bruce had continued to speak regularly.
Davis said he and his wife had been thinking of Bruce this afternoon and decided to pass by and see how she was. Then they found the emergency vehicles outside and Bruce’s yard cordoned off with crime scene tape.
According to the medical examiner on scene, it appeared that Bruce may have died of natural causes some time ago. He wasn’t able to say for sure how long it had been, but added that the back sliding door had been open, apparently for Bruce’s three dogs to pass in and out.
The emaciated dogs loped through the neighbors’ yards as Riverdale firefighters and police stared off into the distance, visibly affected by the scene. Two Clayton County Animal Control officers pulled up, after a day of dealing with parvo at the shelters, to retrieve Bruce’s traumatized pets. They managed to catch two, but a third eluded them.
Two men in a white van arrived to remove Bruce’s body and take it to the Clayton County Medical Examiner’s facility.
Bruce was elected to city council from Ward 2 in 2003, advocating for Neighborhood Watch and a police bike patrol.
In 2005, Bruce served on the steering committee for the City of Riverdale’s Comprehensive Plan for 2005 through 2025.
When Bruce ran for reelection in 2007, she had three challengers. She and challenger Wayne Hall made the runoff. But Georgia Fuller, who came in third, filed a lawsuit claiming Bruce, who was at the time openly transgender, had “fraudulently” claimed to be a woman. Fuller alleged that had cost her votes. Another candidate, Stan Harris, joined Fuller in the suit against Bruce, according to political reporter Greg Bluestein, then with the Associated Press. (That case deliberately “deadnamed” Bruce as “Michael Bruce.”)
At the time, NPR’s Scott Simon offered commentary on Bruce’s suit and the supposed “advantage” two decades ago of being a transgender candidate for political office in the South, comparing Bruce’s situation to former New York Mayor and Rudy Giuliani dressing in drag:
Bruce told Bluestein, “They’re just distracting the voters from the issues. Everybody in my district knows me, everyone in Riverdale knows me. I’ve done a real good job representing the people. I’m Michelle. I’m the same Michelle they elected four years ago.”
Then-Riverdale City Attorney Deana Johnson said the suit “sounds like a case of politics” and that “She has served as councilperson for four years as Michelle Bruce.”
The Georgia Supreme Court threw out the case, ruling unanimously “that the two political opponents who filed the lawsuit failed to produce evidence of fraud, misconduct or illegal action after claiming that Michelle Bruce bamboozled voters by identifying herself as female,” Bluestein reported.
By then, Bruce had lost reelection, which she attributed to the suit. The case made national headlines.
At the time, Bruce said, “This is a great victory for me and anyone who believes in equality. It gives me hope that the Georgia Supreme Court did what was right and did not buy into hate-based politics.”
Reached at her home Tuesday night, Fuller said, “I hadn’t heard that he died. I’ve been working. Oh, wow. I’m so sorry to hear that. I know sometimes I used to see him when I passed by over that way. I’m so sorry.”
In 2012, Bruce started the Clayton County LGBT Club, writing, “we are going to be a group of people that cares and fights…to show everyone we are people too as we can be a big part of the community for betterment of everyone to live in harmony, as we all worry about no jobs, higher taxes and [i]njustice against racism,” adding that “[w]e as LGBT pays taxes and votes and spends money here in Clayton County” and promising to scrutinize all elected officials and candidates.
Despite her medical issues, Bruce continued to speak on various issues during Riverdale City Council’s public comment period.
In 2015, Bruce filed ethics complaints against then-Councilmembers Davis and Cynthia Stamps-Jones, who had voted to move ahead on five of 22 ethics complaints against Mayor Evelyn Winn-Dixon, despite an investigator’s recommendation to drop those complaints. Less than two weeks later, Bruce dropped the charges, saying she’d “been instructed” not to say why.
More to come.
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