“In the commonwealth of Virginia, if you were to say to your boss, ‘I’m gay,’ your boss could look at you now and say, ‘You are gay, therefore, you are fired.’ There’s nothing illegal about that.”
Jay Fisette, the Democratic chairman of the Arlington County Board, who is gay, is referring to an executive order in Virginia that under the leadership of the state’s last two governors, both Democrats, had prohibited discrimination against state employees on the basis of sexual orientation, among other categories.
Things changed on Feb. 5, when Virginia’s new GOP Gov. Robert F. McDonnell signed a new executive order banning discrimination of state workers on the basis of “race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, political affiliation, or against otherwise qualified persons with disabilities” -- specifically omitting “sexual orientation.”
Fisette calls the move "atrocious."
“Everyone’s trying to get indications and understand which Bob McDonnell is now our governor. Is it the one that campaigned about being fair and a more modern Republican, and not discriminating against gay people? Or is it the one who wrote that thesis?”
During the campaign, the Washington Post published "that thesis," which McDonnell wrote in 1989, describing how the Republican Party can protect American families. He was 34 at the time and attending televangelist Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., working toward a law degree.
“Man's basic nature is inclined towards evil, and when the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality, the government must restrain, punish, and deter,” McDonnell argued.
Now, 21 years later, Fisette says McDonnell’s actions go beyond words.
“These are not words now. It’s action. He has chosen to remove protections that had been in an executive order for two administrations prior to him.”
Del. Adam Ebbin (D), Virginia's only openly gay delegate, who represents the state's 49th District in Northern Virginia, says he is “extremely disappointed” by the move, even though it was expected.
“McDonnell had given his opinion as attorney general that a governor couldn’t [provide those protections in an executive order]," Ebbin points out. "As ridiculous as his opinion was, that’s what he had said."
“It means we’re back to the same status we were before Gov. [Mark] Warner issued the executive order. We don’t have the protections for state employees that they deserve.”
While Virginia already has a reputation as one of the more legally oppressive states for gay people, following a successful 2006 ballot measure prohibiting any form of recognition whatsoever of same-sex couples, some jurisdictions buck the trend.
Arlington County, Alexandria and Charlottesville, for example, have in place local ordinances that prohibit discrimination of gay and lesbian people. Discrimination on the basis of “gender identity,” is prohibited by local ordinances in Arlington and Loudon counties.
In addition to that, Fisette says many companies and organizations have also put into place their own protections for LGBT workers.
Despite what protections remain, Fisette says McDonnell's move hurts the gay community on multiple levels.
“When you’re in a leadership role, symbolism matters,” he says. “The message you send matters. And it’s also practical. We know a lot of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, who have anxiety about the workplace and how they’re going to support themselves.
“Maybe they have a boss who gives them reason to be anxious. Having the state government prohibit such discrimination is a big deal to a lot of people.”
“The practical effect is that gay people will be more reluctant to come out,” he says. “[Gay] people will be uncertain or afraid for their jobs. We’ve taken a step backwards.”
Ebbin says he’s hoping to use the situation to raise awareness about the work that needs to be done in Virginia.
“This is a setback for the community, but I’m afraid that the community at large is not aware of it because it hasn’t gotten as much publicity. I don’t think many people know about what happened.”
Those who are aware joined Ebbin during a recent lobbying event organized by Equality Virginia, the state’s LGBT equal-rights organization, in support of legislation that would add “sexual orientation” to the state’s employment nondiscrimination policy.
Though a bill drafted by Ebbin to that end failed in the Republican-led House of Delegates, a similar bill, Senate Bill 66, drafted by Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D) passed the Senate, which has a Democratic majority, and is awaiting a House vote.
“It’s the most practical chance we have,” Ebbin says.
Fisette adds that supporting Equality Virginia is another avenue: “You need to join, you need to send some money and help them fight for us.
“I hope that the LGBT community and our allies and friends say something about this, and get offended by the fact that this protection has been repealed and that Gov. McDonnell is not proactively supporting legislation that would replace it.
“I hope he steps up, but time is running out.”
For more information about Equality Virginia, visit equalityvirginia.org.