With equality bills all but dead for the 2015 session, LGBTQ Virginians gather at the GA
At 7-years-old, living in the southern Bible belt of Georgia, Donna Price (pictured below) knew she was different. As she told me her long, painful story she still smiled, joked and reapplied her lipstick.
Price lived unhappily as a man for years, even attempting suicide in 2001, until last year when she went through the medical and legal procedures to officially become a woman.
“I think it’s very important for me to be here, to be visible, to be seen, to be heard,” Price said. “Because we are people and we are entitled to the same rights and equal protection that any other person in this country is entitled.”
Tuesday morning was brisk, sunny and full of hope for Virginian LGBTQ advocates like Price. Around 40 people gathered at the Library of Virginia for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action. That number grew throughout the day to about 100 people at the evening’s reception.
By 10 a.m. most of the attendees were lobbying with legislators, trying to gain those last few votes needed to pass SB785 and SB1211, some of the few LGBTQ rights bills still alive after a brutal legislative session.
Advocates were optimistic about the fate of the Senate bills, despite past failures this session, and from sessions past.
Even with emotional testimony, particularly from Mathew Shurka, an ex-gay therapy survivor who spent some of his formative years in a Virginia-based program, calls for LGBTQ bans on “reparative therapy” were met on deaf ears.
Two bills (one in the House and one in the Senate) hoping to ban discriminatory practices in housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity similarly failed to make it out of committee.
Those in opposition, like Sen. Dick Black, R-Leesburg, said these fair housing bills would infringe upon an individual’s religious liberty.
Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas used that same logic when introducing HB1414, which would have allowed private Virginia business to discriminate against the LGBT people in the name of religious freedom.
However his bill also failed to gather enough committee votes to get a full House vote.
For folks like Price, who joined the Navy as a Roman Catholic man, witnessing gender, racial and religious discrimination was not uncommon. Now, still a devout Christian woman, she strongly opposes bills like Marshall’s.
“Some of them really upset me because they are couched in language of religious freedom and in effect it’s nothing but another form of discrimination,” Price said. “These are people who are abusing Christian faith.”
Two other house bills, HB1498 and HB1643, prohibited discrimination in public employment. They were both laid on the table, left for dead, by their subcommittee.
However, McEachin’s bill protecting against similar workplace discrimination is still alive in the Senate.
Del. Scott Surovell, a long time ally, once again returned this session with a bill to remove Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage. Yes, even after a Federal Court struck the ban, the language remains codified in the Virginia Constitution, and does still after Surovell’s bill failed to make it out of committee in late January.
The ban will stay on the law books for at least another year, similar to how the state’s ban on sodomy between consenting adults stayed on the books until last year, 11 years after the Supreme Court nullified it.
Even incredibly specific attempts to provide protections to LGBTQ folks were nixed before they had a chance get a floor vote.
A bill formally legalizing phone-based taxi services like Uber and Lyft originally included language to prevent discrimination against gay or transgender people. But it was amended, removing the inclusive text, before it made it to the Senate floor.
Conservative activist Victoria Cobb from the Family Foundation claimed leaving the protections in would have promoted “the sexual orientation/gender identity agenda.”
Carl Johansen (pictured below), Secretary for EV and President of Harbor, a Hampton Rhoads based LGBTQ business association, said that’s why EV and the rest of the participants were there. He said even though same-sex marriage had been passed, there was still work to be done.
“It’s important to us that our members of our community are protected in the workplace and that they have fair housing opportunities, adoption, safe schools, anti-bullying; there’s a lot,” Johansen said.
Johansen said he experienced discrimination in the workplace many years ago after a former partner had sent him flowers at work.
“Those flowers sat on the receptionist’s desk for most of the day before they were sent down to the floor I was on and apparently everybody read it,” said Johansen. “And two, three days later I was let go with no explanation so you do the math. I feel like it was because of my sexual orientation but they never had to say anything and they didn’t.”
The EV advocates divided into two groups to be introduced in the House and Senate (Senate group pictured below). Following a lunch break, the group attended workshops which included advocacy training, transgender issues and coming out in the workplace.
The cheerful optimism became a full-on celebration after both bills passed the Senate that afternoon. There was some nervousness amongst EV representatives and advocates because two Democratic Senators were out for medical reasons.
Sen. Ebbin’s bill, SB1211, would remove gender-specific references from Virginia code. He explained his bill as a necessary clarification of current laws for the purposes of “tax code, real estate transactions and domestic relations” in a post-same-sex marriage Virginia.
SB1211 passed in a 23-15 vote.
Afterwards, Ebbin said he was fairly confident he had the votes to win.
“It was exciting to win outright. We worked hard to count the votes and I think we made the case that spouse means spouse means spouse,” Ebbin said. “Legally married people all deserve the same clarity in the code.
Sen. McEachin’s (pictured below) workplace protections bill, SB785, had a much closer game when it went before the full Senate that day. But republican Senators John Watkins, R-Midlothian, and Jill Vogel, R-Winchester both voted in favor of the bill, leaving it tied 19-19.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was the tiebreaker, and voted to pass the bill onto the House. Northam attended the EV reception that evening, along with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring and many other delegates and senators.
McEachin said it was “especially sweet to have a bipartisan win.”
“Anytime any piece of any part of the legislature stands up for equality is a good day,” McEachin said. “You know we’ve got a lot of hard work to do in the House but we will keep plugging and keep working until this is done.”
Northam joked that winning every time he voted made lieutenant governor the best job ever. But he also said there is more work to be done, which is why elections are so important.
“These elections have tremendous consequences,” Northam said. “It has been a pleasure to serve with the governor of the commonwealth Terry McAuliffe and our Attorney General Mark Herring and all of these good people behind me. Elections do make a difference.”
Herring said he was pleased with the progress the commonwealth has seen over the last year and thanked the crowd for their continued fight for equality. In January 2014, Herring said the Attorney General’s office would not defend Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“I’m sure you all remember all the criticism that came along with that and the threats of impeachment and attempts at disbarment and all of that,” Herring said. “ I can’t tell you what it mean through all of it to know that every single one of you in this room and so many others all across the commonwealth were with me, and how great it was to meet such courageous Virginians.”
McAuliffe, the final speaker at the reception, echoed Northam’s sentiments that elections matter for the continuation of progress.
“We’ve got big elections coming up. I don’t want Ralph (Northam) to have to break ties anymore,” McAuliffe said. “Let’s make sure the [Senator] Dick Saslaw is the majority leader”
Upon taking office, McAuliffe signed his first executive order banning discrimination in the public workforce, which could be codified in state law with McEachin’s bill if it passes the House. The governor also issued an executive order allowing same-sex couples to adopt.
“We need to be making sure that Virginia at the end of the day, is open and welcoming to everyone,” McAuliffe said. “If you go back to everything I talk about – open and welcoming. Let it be the LGBT community, let it be women issues, we have got to be open and welcoming that is how we grow and diversify our economy.”
McAuliffe’s speech was one he’s mimicked since he started on the campaign trail – “Being open to LGBTQs is good for Virginia Business.” But to folks like Price, these rights are a matter of life and death.
“I am so thankful that I did not die during my suicide attempt,” she said before wrapping up her time at the General Assembly for the year. “Because I am now able to live as who I am, the person that God made me to be, to see so much progress being made in our community.
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