Virginia State Capitol — Photo: Skip Plitt/Wikimedia Commons.
Janet Moore is nothing if not persistent. On Monday, Feb. 5, the 62-year-old mortgage loan officer and Virginia Beach resident was on a mission: to get a face-to-face meeting with her state delegate, Jason Miyares. She wasn’t leaving until she got one.
“He was very busy. We waited past our time, but we pretty much camped out in his office,” says Moore, who waited 45 minutes to see Miyares. “A lot of people were there to see him. A lot of people jumped in front of us. But we stayed there, because it was important to let him know how we felt.”
The mother of a gay son and a board member of Equality Virginia, Moore was at the State Capitol in Richmond as part of Equality Virginia’s Day of Action, an annual event bringing dozens of LGBTQ Virginians together to network and form working relationships aimed at meeting the needs of the LGBTQ community. Virginians from throughout the state spent Monday morning milling about the Capitol, visiting the offices of their legislators to express their opinions and urge lawmakers to support pro-equality legislation.
Moore’s visit to Miyares was especially important because of the outsized influence the two-term legislator has over important bills. He sits on two separate subcommittees that will decide whether it will be illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in public employment or housing. Obtaining his vote is critical, as many activists believe that if the bills can clear the subcommittees, they will easily pass the General Laws committee and a full House vote. However, Moore says Miyares, a Republican, has raised concerns about both bills, calling them overly broad.
“He was very candid about his reservations,” says Moore. “We lovingly disagreed with each other, but I feel it’s more of letting him know how his constituents really feel. I think it’s a learning experience for him.”
Despite Miyares’ legislative reservations, Moore continued to talk to him, bonding over their neighborhoods in Virginia Beach, where their children attended school, and other personal connections. She even invited Miyares to Equality Virginia’s legislative reception on Monday evening. Six hours later, Miyares was seen at that reception, drinking a beer while chatting with the LGBTQ attendees and several pro-equality legislators.
“This is the first time I had a one-on-one conversation with Jason,” says Moore. “And I feel like if Jason said he was coming to the cocktail party, and he shows up, and is there to meet more people from the LGBT community and some of his constituents, and listen to their point of view, and have a beer and get to know us, that’s always positive.
“I think him coming to the cocktail party made me hopeful. It makes me feel that he is more open to listen to both sides, and that he needs to feel that all parties are protected as possible,” she adds. “Do I believe he’s going to vote for the bills? No, I believe he’s going to vote against both bills. But I believe it’s opened the door for more conversation and eventually changing his mind.”
Getting that foot in the door is what spurred many to the Capitol on Monday. Scott Wyatt, a gay 67-year-old from Norfolk, came to speak to his delegate, Steve Heretick, a Democrat from Portsmouth, about some of the bills Equality Virginia is backing this legislative session.
“I met with [Heretick] personally,” says Wyatt. “He told me he would vote for the bills if they get to the floor. But since the Republicans control the committees, we may be out of luck.”
Despite the possibility of defeat, Wyatt felt it was important to show up at the General Assembly and let his voice be heard.
“I think once you develop a relationship with your state legislator, they get to know you on a first-name basis,” he says. “From then on, they can equate what laws are going to affect you personally, because they know someone who it’s going to affect.”
History-making Manassas Park delegate Danica Roem, the first out transgender person elected to the General Assembly, says it can be particularly frustrating to see the Republican majority defeat her bills, and those of her fellow freshman lawmakers, even though dozens of her constituents have come to Richmond to lobby on behalf of her bills — most of which aren’t even LGBTQ-related.
“My constituents are doing everything they can to help me, and I’m doing everything I can to fulfill their requests,” says Roem. “When the feedback we’re getting, even from Republicans, is overwhelmingly positive, and they’re defeated on party-line votes, it leaves you scratching your head, and you just have to come back and try to do better next time.”
Stephanie Sterner, a 35-year-old gender-nonconforming bisexual from Virginia Beach, loves lobbying legislators, something she routinely does as part of her work for the Progressive Democrats of America. Sterner, who came to lobby Del. Chris Stolle and Sen. Frank Wagner on a host of pro-LGBTQ bills, says it’s important that lawmakers understand the challenges facing their LGBTQ constituents.
“I can tell you stories,” Sterner says. “I have a friend who came out as bisexual, and [he was fired] because of his sexuality. I had two other friends who wanted to rent an apartment and wanted to share a room to save money, and the landlord would not rent to them because ‘it was against his Southern nature.’
“So this stuff is still happening, even in Hampton Roads,” Sterner continues. “It needs to stop, and we can only do that by making our delegates and senators aware of it.”
Sterner believes more lawmakers should go out of their way to meet people who are LGBTQ, in order to resolve some of their misconceptions about the larger community.
“You can’t just read about gender. You have to be with people who are their expressions of gender identity,” says Sterner. “Get to know them, become friends with them. You’ll start to realize they’re not so odd after all.”
It’s a sentiment Ann Murdoch, a 55-year-old transgender resident of Springfield, Va., agrees with.
“People always talk about the ‘trans agenda.’ Well, my trans agenda last week was painting my house. And tomorrow, my trans agenda is going to be getting up, going to work, working for eight hours, and then taking my daughter to an afterschool program,” she says. “I’m married. I have kids. I’m putting one through college and have another preparing to go to college. Same as thousands of other people out there.”
An Army veteran who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Murdoch first became familiar with Equality Virginia after she came to Richmond to lobby her then-delegate Dave Albo, asking him to defeat an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” that was similar to North Carolina’s controversial anti-LGBTQ HB 2 law.
“I wanted to raise my voice,” she says, “and after seeing what happened in North Carolina, and in the 2016 election, it hit home that it’s critical to speak up, that you can’t take your rights for granted, and you have to be working to defend them all the time.”
Yet Murdoch also feels that the political winds are gradually shifting in LGBTQ people’s favor, and expects that the General Assembly will eventually catch up to that realization.
“I think some politicians are seeing that the culture wars aren’t a good value proposition for their re-election chances. People are starting to see through some of the ‘religious’ arguments that are baseless,” she says. “We need to keep doing what we’ve been doing. The persistence is paying off. The tide is turning.”
John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com
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