Setting the Richmond Stage

Equality Virginia and allies mark one-month countdown to brief legislative session by pushing antidiscrimination bill

LGBT rights groups, led by Equality Virginia, the largest such group in the state, are rallying around an antidiscrimination bill ahead of the 2013 legislative session – just 30-days long, starting Jan. 9.

The bill, SB701, would prohibit employment discrimination based upon a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, defining ”sexual orientation” as a person’s actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality or homosexuality, and also as gender identity or expression. Ahead of the 2013 session, the bill has already been introduced by Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond, Henrico, Charles City), and co-sponsored by the General Assembly’s sole out gay legislator, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington, Alexandria).

Equality Virginia

Three similar bills failed in the House of Delegates in the 2012 session, killed in committee. A Senate bill introduced last session was also killed after Republicans, who hold an 8-7 edge on the Committee on General Laws and Technology, forced a party-line vote on a motion denying debate on the bill. During the 2011 session, when Democrats controlled the upper chamber, a similar bill passed the Senate, but later died in committee in the House.

Kevin Clay, a spokesman for Equality Virginia, says that along with legislative action in the General Assembly, the organization is trying to secure employment protections for LGBT residents in eight local jurisdictions. But Clay also cautioned that due to a law on the books known as Dillon’s Rule, which limits the authority of local government, such local ordinances have little legal standing.

Notably, the push for SB701 follows news of discrimination – whether actual or perceived – against LGBT Virginians.

In one case, a former women’s volleyball coach at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), James Finley, says he was fired Nov. 19 because he is gay. Finley also told ESPN in a Dec. 5 interview that the university’s new athletic director demoted the only other out gay employee under his supervision shortly after meeting her partner. VCU President Michael Rao advised the university community in a Nov. 30 email that Finley’s firing is being investigated.

In May, the fiercely anti-gay Family Foundation led a fight to keep Tracy Thorne-Begland, a Navy veteran and a state prosecutor at the time, from becoming Virginia’s first out gay judge. A temporary appointment sidestepped the GOP opposition in the General Assembly, though he faces a confirmation vote in 2013.

New data released Nov. 20 by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found that 80 percent of transgender and gender-non-conforming people in the commonwealth experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job; more than one in five lost a job; and more than one in four were denied a promotion because of their gender identity.

”From our perspective, from the VCU coach allegations to Tracy Thorne-Begland’s rejection for a judgeship earlier this year all highlight the need for sexual orientation protections in employment,” Clay said. ”It’s absolutely crucial that we get a law passed and get those protections in place.”

To organize constituents supportive of the legislation, Equality Virginia and Progress Virginia have created a website, supportsb701.org, featuring an online petition calling for a change in Virginia laws to provide nondiscrimination protections in public employment, which will then be sent to legislators. The groups have also been holding roundtable discussions across the state to help spread awareness among the general public, and collecting statements of support from local mayors, city or county councilmembers and school board members who can use their positions to influence General Assembly lawmakers.

”This is really commonsense legislation,” says Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. ”We’ve actually had many people who are shocked that these protections aren’t in place for Virginia’s state workers.”

Advocates of SB701 are hopeful that such grassroots organizing will eventually pay dividends and build momentum for the bill, which faces an uphill battle in a Republican-controlled House and an evenly split Senate where Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), a gay-rights opponent, serves as the tiebreaking vote.

”Virginia’s new slogan is ‘Open for Business,’ but that doesn’t apply to its LGBT citizens,” Clay says. ”Yet 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have some employment protections that at least include sexual orientation, which allows them to recruit and keep talent.

”Businesses already understand this. It’s just time for the government – and Virginia – to catch up.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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