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OPINION: Our Rights Are Held Captive By A Gerrymandered General Assembly

No meaningful LGBTQ rights will be passed into law in Virginia this year.

Marilyn Drew Necci | February 9, 2018

Remember all those pro-LGBTQ bills that got introduced back at the beginning of this year’s General Assembly session? Almost all of them are dead now. In the last 24 hours, no less than four bills were killed in House Of Delegates subcommittees. What the hell is going on here?

At the beginning of this session, we were all riding a wave of positive energy. Democrat Ralph Northam won a 9-point victory over his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, to take the office of Virginia Governor with a clear mandate. The huge swing in the General Assembly further underlined this mandate, with a 32-seat Republican advantage being erased as a dozen or so Republican incumbents were defeated by Democratic challengers. Suddenly, things were almost equal, with both houses of the Genera Assembly under Republican control by a one-vote margin in each.

Of course, that margin in the House Of Delegates was decided when the winner of the 94th District election was decided by pulling names out of a bowl, which struck the first sour note of the year. Still, as I wrote soon after the election, “Virginia’s LGBTQ community have their own special reasons to be overjoyed,” due not only to the general swing to the Democrats but the particular defeat of longtime LGBTQ opponent Bob Marshall by Danica Roem, the historic first transgender candidate to take state-level office.

So what happened? In as few words as possible: the House Of Delegates happened. In spite of all the potential progress we were poised to achieve as a community, bills intended to ensure several important facets of LGBTQ civil rights were defeated at the subcommittee level, with less than a fifth of the House shutting them down before anyone else ever got to vote on them.

These aren’t just minor things, either. Five different bills and resolutions intended to cover sexual orientation and gender identity under state hate crimes statutes. This is protection we need: James William Hill III, who attacked a coworker at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chester in 2015 because he perceived the coworker as gay, was initially charged with only misdemeanor assault. With no hate crime protections in place here in Virginia, Hill couldn’t be charged with anything more, despite having told police that he attacked his coworker because he didn’t like gay people. Thankfully, charges were eventually brought at the Federal level, but it took years, and relied on Amazon’s conducting of interstate commerce from that fulfillment center, a significant detail that would not apply in most anti-LGBTQ hate crime cases.

A variety of bills, including Del. Mark Levine’s very wide-ranging HB 401, attempted to finally prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, and a variety of other situations. Even 30th District Senator Adam Ebbin’s SB 202, which strove merely to make a permanent law of the protections for LGBTQ state employees that have been enacted through Executive Orders by the last two governors, was shot down in subcommittee in the House of Delegates — after it had already passed through the entire Senate. SB 423, which ensured housing protections for LGBTQ people, was also struck down in a House subcommittee after passing at the Senate level.

29 states have hate-crime protections for LGBTQ people. Over 35 have protections against employment discrimination. These are not radical positions for our state government to take. Why are they being shot down as unceremoniously as frivolous garbage like anti-Daylight Savings Time bills?

Attempts to provide trans people with basic rights were universally shut down as well. Bills helping to modernize the process of changing gender markers on birth certificates, and preventing health insurance companies from discriminating against transgender clients by withholding important health care, were struck down at the subcommittee level. Ironically, the Republican who had his name pulled out of a bowl to give him the 94th District cast a crucial vote in the latter defeat. This is how arbitrarily our rights are denied.

A few bills we talked about at the beginning of the session are still alive, but most of them are minor. None of the ones that would respond to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Virginia by replacing references to hetero-married couples with gender-neutral terms have been killed (yet), and two different bills and resolutions relating to the 2006 amendment saying marriage is “only a union between one man and one woman” have been continued to 2019.

But with that amendment being federally unconstitutional at this point, getting it stricken from the state Constitution would be more of a symbolic victory than anything. And when someone who randomly attacks a trans woman walking down the street can still be charged with nothing more than misdemeanor assault, when a gay man can be fired for being gay as long as he doesn’t work for the state, when children questioning their sexuality can be forced into conversion therapy by their family or their church with no legal repercussions, what good are symbolic victories?

In the end, this all comes down to gerrymandering, which, it appears, might be the most important LGBTQ issue of all here in Virginia. Back at the beginning of the week, at Equality Virginia’s Day Of Action, we heard from 69th District Delegate Betsy Carr about how important an issue gerrymandering is to her, and the House Resolution she’d proposed to reduce gerrymandering. At the end of the week, with all three of the bills Equality Virginia was there to talk about dead, the fact that her anti-gerrymandering resolution is still alive as yet can offer us what might be a tiny scrap of hope.

But regardless, something needs to change — something big. After a Democratic governor swept into office on a 9-point victory mandate, and over a dozen seats in the House of Delegates flipped to Democratic control, the fact that LGBTQ rights are still treated as a non-issue by our state’s legislature is reason for the joy we felt at the beginning of this session to turn to righteous fury. Maybe it’s time for a lawsuit of our own against the Virginia State Board of Elections.

I’m just a journalist, I don’t know how something like that would work. But I do know that all of us have representatives who need to hear a whole lot more about this. It’s our responsibility to blow these people up, to make them listen to our needs and let them know that we won’t take this sort of injustice lying down. Call your US Senator, call your Congressperson, call the governor — call somebody. You can find contact info for your US representatives at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members. Do it. Give ‘em hell.

Photo via Virginia House GOP