Gay rights activists celebrated as the Senate passed two bills supported by the LGBT community: one banning discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity; and the other to reword gender-specific terms in state law now that same-sex marriage is legal in Virginia.
By Victoria Zawitkowski
At seven years old and living in the Bible Belt state of Georgia, Donna Price knew she was different. As she told 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.”
“Here” was Capitol Square, where Equality Virginia, an advocacy group for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, held its Day of Action last week. It began with visits to legislative offices to educate lawmakers about LGBT issues, and culminated with an evening reception that drew about 100 people, including the governor.
The daylong series of events was more than a feel-good rally. It coincided with tangible results for the LGBT community – its first legislative victories of the General Assembly’s 2015 session.
By the end of the day, the Senate passed two bills supported by gay rights advocates: one banning discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity; and the other to reword gender-specific terms in state law now that same-sex marriage is legal in Virginia.
Tuesday morning was brisk, sunny, and full of hope for LGBT advocates like Price, as about 40 people gathered at the Library of Virginia. By 10:00 AM, most of the attendees were lobbying legislators, trying to gain the last votes needed to pass the few LGBT rights bills still alive this legislative session. The advocates were optimistic, despite previous losses.
Many bills supported by the LGBT community did not make it out of their committees. House Bill 1385 and Senate Bill 988, for example, would have prohibited conversion therapy for minors. Conversion therapy means treatments that seek to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The American Psychiatric Association and other groups consider such therapy harmful on grounds that sexual orientation is innate.
Despite emotional testimony from gay therapy survivors, both bills died in committee. SB 917 and HB 1454 sought to ban discriminatory practices in housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Those bills also died in committee. Sen. Dick Black, R-Leesburg, and other opponents said the proposals would infringe upon an individual’s religious liberty.
Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, cited the same logic in introducing HB 1414, which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals in the name of religious freedom. His bill did not make it out of committee, either.
When Price joined the U.S. Navy as a Roman Catholic man, she said she witnessed gender, racial, and religious discrimination. Now, she describes herself as a devout Christian woman but 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.
Carl Johansen is secretary of Equality Virginia and president of Hampton Roads Business OutReach, the LGBT Chamber of Commerce based in Norfolk. He said that although same-sex marriage is now legal in Virginia, more work must be done to ensure LGBT rights. “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,” Johansen said. “There’s a lot.”
Johansen said he experienced discrimination in the workplace 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,” Johansen said. “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.”
Such experiences are why LGBT advocates were ecstatic about their first victory of the day: the Senate’s passage of SB 785, sponsored by Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond. It would prohibit government agencies from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The vote was as close as you can get. The 17 Democratic senators present all voted for SB 785; they were joined by two Republican senators – John Watkins of Midlothian and Jill Vogel of Winchester. The remaining 19 Republican senators all voted against the bill, resulting in a 19-19 tie.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, then cast the tiebreaking vote to pass SB 785 on to the House of Delegates.
“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.”
Later, the Senate voted 20-18 to pass the bill revising gender-specific references like husband and wife in state law. “It was exciting to win outright,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the measure (SB 1211). “Legally married people all deserve the same clarity in the code.”
That evening, Ebbin and many other legislators attended Equality Virginia’s annual reception. Also present were Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The Democratic officeholders said they hoped their party would win back control of the Senate from Republicans.
“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 that Dick Saslaw is the majority leader.”
The governor said ensuring LGBT rights is good for Virginia’s economy. “We need to be making sure that Virginia at the end of the day is open and welcoming to everyone,” McAuliffe said.
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How They Voted
How the Senate voted Tuesday on SB 785 (“Public employment; prohibits discrimination based on basis of sexual orientation or gender identity”).
Floor: 02/03/15 Senate: Read third time and passed Senate (19-Y 19-N)
- YEAS – Alexander, Barker, Colgan, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Marsden, McEachin, Miller, Petersen, Saslaw, Vogel, Watkins, Wexton – 19.
- NAYS – Black, Carrico, Chafin, Cosgrove, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart, Wagner – 19.
- NOT VOTING – Lucas, Puller – 2.
Mr. President (Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam): YEA
How the Senate voted Tuesday on SB 1211 (“Gender-specific references; revision to certain terms in the Code of Virginia”).
Floor: 02/03/15 Senate: Read third time and passed Senate (20-Y 18-N)
- YEAS – Alexander, Barker, Colgan, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Marsden, McEachin, Miller, Norment, Petersen, Saslaw, Stosch, Watkins, Wexton – 20.
- **NAYS **- Black, Carrico, Chafin, Cosgrove, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stuart, Vogel, Wagner – 18.
- NOT VOTING – Lucas, Puller – 2.
Photo by: VCU CNS