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Equality Virginia’s Day Of Action Takes Advocacy To a One-On-One Level

Members of Virginia's LGBTQ community joined with Equality Virginia to speak directly to their representatives and advocate for their interests.

Marilyn Drew Necci | February 6, 2018

If there’s one thing we have learned repeatedly since the 2016 elections, it’s that representation matters. This is what makes an event like Equality Virginia’s Day of Action so important; it gives us a chance to speak directly to our elected officials about our needs, our concerns, and our expectations for them in order to win our votes in the future.

Equality Virginia is an organization that has been advocating for the interests of the LGBTQ community in the commonwealth since 1989. Yesterday, they took that fight directly to the General Assembly. Organizing members and allies of the LGBTQ community for a day-long event, Equality Virginia booked appointments with representatives from the GA and their legislative aides in order to bring those representatives face-to-face with their constituents from the LGBTQ community.

Over 200 people from around the Commonwealth signed up to become advocates for the day, and while inclement weather interfered with the ability of people from some parts of the state to make it to downtown Richmond, a sizable crowd greeted EV director James Parrish as he took the stage in the Library of Virginia’s auditorium to welcome participants. Explaining the procedure for those (like myself) who had never participated before, he went over the three bills that Equality Virginia was focusing their efforts on to get everyone ready to talk about them.

Two of the bills, SB 202 and SB 423, have already passed the Senate, and are now headed for committee vote in the House of Delegates. SB 202 would permanently ban discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Right now, those protections are guaranteed only by an Executive Order signed by Gov. Northam on the night of his inauguration — they could go away if any future governor were to decide not to renew that Executive Order.

SB 423 would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing. Both it and SB 202 passed the Senate with bipartisan support, seeing not only all of the Democratic Senators but also 10 Republican Senators voting in favor. Equality Virginia is therefore hopeful that both bills will pass through the House as well — Parrish mentioned in his opening speech that EV believes this will be the best opportunity to get these bills passed that we’ll see over the next four years.

The third bill, HB 1466, bans discrimination in health insurance coverage on the basis of gender identity or transgender status, ensuring that trans people in Virginia would no longer be faced with a bevy of health insurance options that specifically exclude transition-related health care. This bill will be heard in subcommittee as soon as later this week, and while its ability to reach a full floor vote is by no means assured, EV wanted to start the conversation around it now, since even if the bill is killed in this session, it will be reintroduced in the future.

Once Parrish had briefed the group, they were directed to the Library of Virginia’s lobby to meet up with others from their House District (everyone had written their delegate’s district on their name tag to make this process easier). Once everyone had gathered together, they headed down the hill to Main Street, to meet their delegates and senators at their offices in the Pocahontas Building.

GayRVA’s Ash Griffith and Marilyn Drew Necci with 71st District advocates.

Equality Virginia was far from the only advocacy group lobbying for their interests in the Pocahontas Building that day. Groups of all political stripes were on the scene, moving from office to office — from the gun control group Moms Demand Action to Americans For Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-helmed group who has given support in the recent past to anti-LGBTQ politicians like VP Mike Pence. Ugh.

The assembled groups varied in size depending on the district, with bigger groups from more thickly populated areas topping the half-dozen mark while as few as one or two advocates from more rural districts met with their delegates. A trend seemed to establish itself here; the delegates who met with significant amounts of constituents were largely receptive to Equality Virginia’s goals.

That wasn’t everyone’s experience, though — one transgender teen receiving a condescending and dismissive response from her delegate in the hallway in front of his office (apparently he did not invite them in). Her delegate said that he didn’t see why he couldn’t feel differently about the issue than she did, and when she pointed out that as a trans person herself, his views affected her life, he dismissed her complaint as a political disagreement and walked away.

Those received more warmly spoke to their delegates not only about their own concerns but also the issues delegates felt passionately about, and were working on during this session. Jeffrey Bourne of the 71st District discussed with constituents his bill to improve Virginia’s Fair Housing Law by making it unlawful for landlords to discriminate against those who used housing subsidies to pay rent. With members of the LGBTQ community having a significantly greater likelihood of struggling for financial stability than the average person, this issue resonated with our concerns.

Delegate Betsy Carr speaks with constituents from the 69th District.

Delegate Betsy Carr of the 69th District told her constituents about a House Resolution she’s proposed, to create a non-partisan redistricting commission that can work to reduce gerrymandering within the state. This issue has heated up here in the Commonwealth over the past several years; multiple lawsuits have been filed against the Virginia State Board of Elections, some of which are still pending.

Thinking about the gerrymandering issue, one can’t help but be reminded of that transgender teenager fruitlessly attempting to gain her delegate’s attention where issues relating to her life and health were concerned. When our elected officials come from districts so securely conservative that they have the luxury of not caring about our community’s issues, there’s a real problem. It seems gerrymandering is an LGBTQ issue as well.

But really, regardless of the ways districts are currently drawn, the efforts of Equality Virginia on this Day of Action, and throughout the year, remain important. Regardless of our delegates’ political positions, we need to make special efforts to make sure they’re keeping our concerns in mind.

After the meetings with representatives from the General Assembly, the day continued with workshops in the afternoon and a legislative reception in the evening. Many stayed on throughout the day, but while some had to head back to work. Nevertheless, all in attendance had taken some important steps that morning, by meeting and getting to know our delegates and state senators, and expressing our interests and concerns to them. As James Parrish had mentioned to us at the start of the event, building relationships with elected officials helps ensure that they know we’re part of their constituency, and that we care about what they do — or don’t do — to help us. This is how we make the changes that we want to see in our state, and there’s no better place to start than in our own backyards.

Additional reporting and editorial work on this story by Ash Griffith and Sara Wheeler. All photos via Equality Virginia’s Facebook page.