Virginia Poised To Pass Discrimination Protections For LGBTQ People
Last year, the Virginia Senate passed bills giving discrimination protections to LGBTQ people who were public employees or looking for housing. It was the fourth year in a row the Senate approved the legislation.
But just like in years past, the Republican-controlled house killed the bills. Despite having a Republican sponsor, they never even got a committee hearing.
“We had the votes necessary to pass that legislation, but the leadership of the house of delegates stood in the way,” said James Parrish, formerly the executive director of Equality Virginia. “It was the first time in my 10 years at the General Assembly that these bills were not given a hearing in committee.”
Parrish’s group had also released polling last year showing that a majority of Republican voters in Virginia support non-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people.
With the new Democratic majority in the House and Senate, Parrish says he’s hopeful there will be a different outcome this year. And advocates are pushing the protections even further.
Under current Virginia law, it is legal for LGBTQ people to be discriminated against at work, in restaurants or when buying a home. Democrats have introduced a bill to change that called the Virginia Values Act.
The proposal would offer the same discrimination protections to gay and transgender people as other protected classes in Virginia, like racial minorities and people with disabilities.
In addition to employment and housing, any business open to the public would not be allowed to refuse service to someone based on gender identity or sexual orientation. That’s known as public accommodation. Banks also couldn’t deny loans to LGBTQ people.
Even though Republican votes won’t be necessary to pass the Virginia Values Act, activists say they are working hard to build broad support this year.
Luca Connolly, a transgender woman who works at the Health Brigade free clinic in Richmond, recently came to the Virginia Capitol to lobby lawmakers.
In meetings, Connolly said she tends to take an economic rather than a moral angle.
“I wish that I could just say ‘Because this is wrong,’ but often what I find is being able to say ‘Don’t you want people to have jobs? Don’t you want people to work?’ is a really moderate and centrist kind of appeal,” she said.
There is little comprehensive employment data, but a 2013 study published by national advocacy groups and unions found that transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed.
Part of the job of winning over lawmakers, Connolly said, is also just showing them that transgender people want the same things as everyone else.
“I think that sitting down and being a real tangible person, just like ‘I’m a human and we are having a conversation about this thing that is important to me’ is so important -- not only in myth busting but in taking away the mysticism,” Connolly said.
Delegate Mark Sickles (D-Franconia) is sponsoring the House version of the bill. At a recent committee hearing, Sickles said the Virginia Values Act is about modernizing state law.
But not everyone sees it as a welcomed change.
Conservative groups are opposing the legislation, claiming that it actually allows for new forms of discrimination against people of faith.
Victoria Cobb, head of The Family Foundation of Virginia, said the proposed non-discrimination bill would prevent people from acting on their faith.
“We’re talking about faith-based businesses of all sorts who simply trying to walk out what they believe in their conscience, whatever their faith may be, and attempting to be blocked by the government,” she said. “That’s not something that stands under our First Amendment.”
Many conservative groups know, however, that some sort of non-discrimination protection for LGBTQ people is likely to pass the General Assembly this year.
The real fight, Cobb said, will then be in the courts.