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VIRGINIA LGBTQ ADVOCATES HOPING FOR BIG GAINS IN GENERAL ASSEMBLY THIS YEAR

For the first time in over a generation, Democrats control both houses of the General Assembly, and advocates are working to ensure that this has positive results for Virginia’s LGBTQ community.

It hasn’t been all that many years since the dawn of a new General Assembly session meant just as many proposed bills designed to diminish LGBTQ rights and further discrimination against us as bills designed to improve the lives of LGBTQ Virginians. That’s changed in recent years, notably with the ending of Bob Marshall’s term in the House Of Delegates, but continued Republican control of both houses of the General Assembly meant that the many pro-LGBTQ bills that were proposed never made it out of committee.

This week, everything changes. The Democrats are in control not only of the Governor’s Office but both houses of the General Assembly. This is the first time that’s been true since 1993, before many of our readers were born, and it has the potential to make a lot of improvements in the civil rights and legal status of LGBTQ Virginians.

State Senator Jennifer McClellan agrees, and called the Democratic electoral victory a “huge deal” in a recent conversation with Virginia Mercury. McClellan has sponsored SB 66, which would amend the Virginia Fair Housing Deal make it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I think that is an area where we would have been able to make some progress had it not been for Republicans in the House who wouldn’t even hear legislation,” McClellan told Virginia Mercury.

Indeed, many of these measures passed in the state Senate in previous sessions, even when it was under Republican control. However, Republican leadership in the House Of Delegates often refused to even hear discussion of pro-LGBTQ bills, either in committees or full sessions of the House. Now, with Democrats in the driver’s seat, LGBTQ advocates see hope on the horizon.

“There is an opportunity to pass legislation that supports Virginia’s LGBTQ community more broadly than just nondiscrimination protection,” James Parrish told the Virginia Mercury. Parrish, until recently the executive director of Equality Virginia, stepped down on January 1 in order to lead the Virginia Values Coalition, a newly formed pro-LGBTQ advocacy organization bringing together groups like Virginia’s ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and the National Center for Transgender Equality under a single banner.

Indeed, many issues are on the table for this upcoming session. Currently, only employees for the government and state contractors are protected from firing based on sexual orientation or gender identity — and those employees are only protected in a temporary fashion. One of Ralph Northam’s first acts as governor was to sign an executive order replicating one previously signed by Terry McAuliffe during his gubernatorial administration, protecting LGBTQ state employees from firing. However, if a less LGBTQ-friendly governor were elected in 2021 and decided not to sign a similar executive order, that protection would disappear.

The new Democratic leadership of the General Assembly are certainly in a position to create a more permanent law protecting public employees against discrimination; indeed, SB 159, introduced by Senator Jennifer Boysko, does exactly that. But advocates see an opportunity to protect more than public employees; Parrish told the Virginia Mercury that advocates are hoping for the passage of a bill that protects all LGBTQ employees, public and private. “We anticipate getting a lot of corporate support for it,” Parrish told the Mercury.

SB 23, introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin, would enact exactly this sort of employment protection. Ebbin, one of five LGBTQ members of the General Assembly, says that a positive change like this has been a long time coming.

“It’s a big deal to know that you can’t just be swept aside as a second-class citizen,” he told the Virginia Mercury. “And it’ll matter. There’s a lot of people older than me who thought this kind of environment would never come.”

Another big push from advocates is to ban conversion therapy in Virginia. While the Virginia Board of Psychology and multiple other state agencies within the Department of Health Professions have released guidance stating that conversion therapy is considered a violation of standard practice, it is still technically legal within the state. Both Richmond and Virginia Beach’s City Councils have passed resolutions asking the General Assembly to ban the practice, and Senator Scott Surovell, who has been attempting to pass a ban for multiple previous sessions, has introduced SB 245 in hopes of doing exactly that. A similar bill in the House Of Delegates, HB 386, has been proposed by Delegate Patrick Hope.

There are other issues on the table as well; bills in both the House and Senate would require the Department of Education to create a statewide policy determining how Virginia’s schools would interact with transgender students. Both bills mandate “a safe and supportive learning environment free from discrimination and harassment for all students.” Bills introduced in the House and Senate also add sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as disability, to the list of classes protected by hate crime legislation.

Multiple bills and resolutions in the Senate attempt to remove the Marshall-Newman Amendment, the 2006 amendment to Virginia’s Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman, from the constitution. While this may seem strictly symbolic now, the Supreme Court’s more conservative shift in recent years, with the addition of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, leave some concerned that federal protections for marriage equality, currently protected only by Supreme Court precedent, may be challenged in the near future.

If the Supreme Court overruled its previous decision in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case, Virginia’s Constitution might once again become the top legal authority on marriage within the Commonwealth. If the Marshall-Newman Amendment remained on the books in such an event, all same-sex marriages within Virginia would immediately lose government recognition. This isn’t an outcome anyone wants, and therefore the passage of bills like Senator John Edwards’ SB 39, which repeals the Marshall-Newman Amendment, are more important than some might think at first.

While not all of the pro-LGBTQ bills currently facing the General Assembly will necessarily pass, it seems likely that the overall legal picture for LGBTQ Virginians will be considerably brighter by the end of the 2020 General Assembly session. And that’s a wonderful thing.

“We’ve come forward. We’re not going back,” Ebbin told the Virginia Mercury. “And I think there’s momentum to bring us to where we should and need to be.”