Virginia may have passed one of the nation’s most restrictive constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and civil unions last November, but that hasn’t slowed down the state’s gay rights advocates.
”We just go back to work,” says Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia. That’s why Mason and more than 250 activists will converge on the offices of Virginia’s General Assembly on Wednesday, Jan. 17, to make their cases directly to delegates and senators.
The timing of the Equality Virginia Lobby Day is apt — on Jan. 16, the Family Foundation will conduct its own activist effort, ”Religious Liberty in the Public Square Lobby Day.” As followers of recent Virginia legislative sessions may expect, Mason says that there will be plenty of bills hostile to the gay community — and quite a few pro-gay bills as well.
”We’re going to be advocating…and making sure our stories are heard,” she says.
Davis Yeuell, a retired Presbyterian pastor who has a gay son, is a member of the board of directors of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia. Yeuell has been lobbying for equal rights for more than two decades, but says the group will veer away from issues related to the recent move by some Virginia Episcopalian churches to split from the national denomination and align with a conservative Nigerian church. At the core of the split is disagreement over the Episcopal church’s ordination of a gay bishop and acceptance of same-sex unions.
A legal battle between the national church and the departing congregations is expected over the buildings and other property. Previous bills in the legislature have attempted to guarantee those churches could retain their buildings. Activists are not aware of any similar bills, though any such efforts may have yet to be introduced.
”Since we’re in an interfaith organization, we would not become involved directly with matters going on with a particular denominations,” says Yeuell. ”Our primary concern will be working with particular congregations, trying to achieve for GLBT people and their families honor, respect and support of religious communities.”
Gay-rights advocates will be focusing on their concerns about House Bill 1727, which would force the use of parental permission slips for public school students who wish to take part in extracurricular activities. Activists argue the measure would jeopardize the existence of the state’s 60 gay-straight alliances (GSAs). Del. Matthew J. Lohr (R) of Harrisonburg is sponsoring the bill. He did not return calls seeking comment by Metro Weekly deadline.
Sarah Gustafson, newly elected president of Equality Fairfax, believes the bill is an attempt to remove GSAs from the state’s schools: ”They’re calling it ‘parental notification,’ but they’re just trying to diminish GSAs.”
Gustafson says the bill creates problems for students who identify as GLBT, and are not out to their parents.
”If you require notification to go to a GSA, they’re not going to go and that will cut off an important social network for them.”
Activists are pleased with the number of pro-gay bills introduced this year, which Gustafson says for the first time in several years outweigh the number of anti-gay efforts.
”That’s a change for Virginia where in the past couple of years its been just a lot more [anti-gay] bills than bills that would give us equality and support our families and our issues,” Gustafson adds.
Those bills include an effort by Arlington Del. David Englin (D) to protect domestic partner benefits in the state’s university system. The status of those benefits is uncertain in light of the constitutional amendment on gay marriage, which also outlawed a broad range of other legal arrangements and benefits often used by gays and lesbians.
Englin has also introduced a bill that would allow the state’s hospital patients the right to name their next of kin, and grant them visitation rights.
Openly gay Del. Adam Ebbin (D) of Alexandria has introduced a number of bills including one that focuses on nondiscrimination in public employment.
”We’ve been fortunate in Virginia that Gov. [Tim] Kaine (D) and former Gov. [Mark] Warner (D) have both issued executive orders that were comprehensive in their scope forbidding discrimination in state hiring,” Ebbin says.
”I was surprised to learn that there is nothing in our laws that outlaws employee discrimination in state hiring. It’s important enough that it needs to be in the code and not reliant on having progressive governors do the right thing each four years.”
Ebbin is also working on a resolution that would amend the marriage amendment by reinstalling some of the original text that was omitted in the amendment’s final version that would allow some partner rights for gay couples in the state.
”The way the marriage amendment passed the House of Delegates, there was a savings clause that clarified that the amendment didn’t restrict the rights of unmarried people to enter into private agreements,” Ebbin says. ”The final version of the amendment did not include a savings clause. Inserting [it] would be a way to address unattended consequences.”
Ebbin emphasizes the importance of visiting delegates, both those who have helped and opposed the gay rights movement in Virginia.
”No matter how conservative the legislature, it is vitally important for every delegate and senator to know that they have to answer to pro-gay and gay and lesbian constituents.”
Ebbin says that legislators ”make a point” of seeing even those constituents they disagree with.
”And there’s no better way to emphasize that than having people wait outside their offices to see them,” he says. ”The bigger the turnout on Lobby Day, the easier my job is of [making] some progress in Virginia.”
Equality Virginia’s Lobby Day is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m., on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at the Richmond City Hall, located at 900 E. Broad St., in Richmond. For a list of other events planned on Lobby Day, registration and more information visit www.equalityvirginia.org.