Last Friday, January 26, the Senate of Virginia took a step in the right direction. In a floor vote, the Senate passed SB 202, which will ban discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. SB 202 protects individuals in the public workforce, from school teachers to public officials, disallowing any discrimination or maltreatment based on one’s gender identification and/or sexual orientation. The bill’s sponsor, 30th District Senator Adam Ebbin, has carried the torch for the issue since 2002, working with several governors and delegates to help put these protections in place.
Previously, the only protections for public employees had been under executive orders signed by Virginia governors. They have remained in effect only through the end of each governor’s term — unless the succeeding governor reaffirms this order, the protections disappear. Governor McAuliffe signed an executive order protecting public employees in the LGBTQ community, as did the newly elected Governor Northam, only hours after his inauguration. If SB 202 passes, it will supersede these executive orders, binding these provisions into law regardless of who sits in the governor’s chair.
Originally, Senator Ebbin created the bill in 2002, though it did not reach the floor of the Senate until 2012. When asked why it took so long, Ebbin alluded to the different culture of the time, acknowledging that Virginia simply was not ready for that level of change at that point. ”It can take time to change people’s minds, particularly in the Virginia General Assembly.” Ebbin said. “Equality, no matter how long it takes, is always worth the fight.”
According to Senator Ebbin, this bill provides “insurance” for the state workforce that has been a long time coming. “It’s great to get this settled once and for all as it should be, and show that Virginia is a forward thinking state that doesn’t want to have controversy over misguided legislation,” Ebbin said.
Furthermore, this bill indicates potential for further progress towards a brighter future in Virginia. With Democrats a slight minority in the Senate, a vote split on party lines would have killed the bill. It needed support from both parties. “It passed 29-10,” Ebbin said. “Nearly half of the Republican caucus voted in favor of the bill, showing strong bipartisan support.”
Senator Ebbin also points out the fiscal benefits to banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. “Most Fortune 500 companies have this level of protection,” he said. “Even those Fortune 500 companies located in Virginia.” Knowing that Virginia doesn’t offer the sorts of protections that such companies consider important may send them looking elsewhere for new business opportunities.
Equality Virginia, an online resource and advocacy organization focused on prioritizing legislature for the LGBTQ community since 1989, has followed this issue since 2015, SB 202 being a “main priority” according to James Parrish, Executive Director of the organization. Parrish feels that this is an opportune time for the bill to go forward. “We are cautiously optimistic [that] this is the best chance we will ever have of the bill getting passed through,” he said.
Now that the bill has passed the Senate, it enters the crossover period, in which the House of Delegates must also pass the bill before it can go before the governor to be signed into law. The bill will begin its journey through the House of Delegates with a hearing by the General Laws Committee, which could take place as soon as February 14. Parrish expressed the importance of the next step in the bill’s progress, as well as the vital contribution this bill could bring to our community, our home.
“This bill would protect the identity of many people working for public employers in all Virginia counties,” Parrish explained. “[This is] especially important for our public school teachers, who help foster a better accepting and inclusive environment in our public schools.”
Equality Virginia is tracking the developments with this and all LGBTQ-related bills and resolutions before the General Assembly this session. Keep up with what’s happening by going to their website, and get involved by signing up for their Day Of Action on Monday, February 5, or by contacting your legislators. Find out who your legislators are, and how to contact them, by using the General Assembly’s Who’s My Legislator tool at http://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/.