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This could be the blueprint for LGBTQ protections in the South

Virginia passed a historic LGBTQ civil rights bill. Could another Southern state be next?

Danica Roem
Delegate Danica Roem on her first day in office at the Virginia State Capitol on January 10, 2017,
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Virginia is just one signature away from taking a historic step to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

On Thursday, the Virginia House of Delegates approved a landmark bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in areas like housing, employment, and public accommodation. The legislation — which passed by a decisive 16-vote margin — was patterned after the Equality Act, a nationwide LGBTQ civil rights bill that passed the US House of Representatives for the first time in 2019. After the bill sailed through the state senate earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam expressed his support for the measure and is expected to soon sign it into law.

The milestone is a long time coming for Virginia state senator Adam Ebbin. He has been pushing for statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination for nearly 30 years: first as an LGBTQ advocate lobbying at the state capitol and then as the state’s first out as gay lawmaker.

Ebbin believes the Democratic gains in the 2019 election — in which the party flipped both houses of the legislature blue for the first time since 1994 — helped set the stage for the bill’s passage.

“This is the first time of the 16 years I’ve been in the general assembly that we’ve had a Democratic majority, so I knew the time was right to attempt to [pass] a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill,” Ebbin tells Vox. “This is not the Old Dominion anymore. This is a new progressive state.”

Virginia has, indeed, witnessed incredible transformation in recent years. The state hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 until Barack Obama swept Virginia twice — both in 2008 and 2012. Meanwhile, the former capital of the Confederacy was also the only Southern state that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.

LGBTQ advocates hope Virginia’s political shift will open the door for future gains in the South. Of the 21 states that have passed LGBTQ civil rights bills, none are located in the Southern half of the U.S. — which is also home to many of the nation’s most harmful anti-LGBTQ legislation. In 2016, Mississippi and North Carolina passed bills that, respectively, allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ customers and barred trans people from using the public bathrooms that most closely aligns with their gender identity. Just weeks ago, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law permitting religious adoption and foster care agencies to refuse placement to prospective same-sex parents.

James Parrish, director of the Virginia Values Coalition, says bringing nondiscrimination protections to other Southern states is critical because research shows LGBTQ people are more likely to live in the South than anywhere else in the country. Thirty-five percent of LGBTQ people call the South home, twice as many as the West Coast. Without statewide laws in place to shield them from prejudicial treatment, this vulnerable population could be fired from their jobs, denied housing, or kicked out of a restaurant simply for being who they are.

“We really hope this bill shows that this is something we can do in the South,” Parrish tells Vox. “We’re very proud for the Commonwealth of Virginia to be the first, but we by no means want to be the last.”

How Virginia’s nondiscrimination bill finally passed

What’s most remarkable about Virginia’s progressive uprising is how quickly it happened. Just three years ago, the state led the country in anti-LGBTQ legislation, passing four laws targeting queer and transgender people between 2013 and 2017. Despite the backlash that greeted North Carolina’s bathroom bill — which was watered down following a boycott from businesses like Apple and Microsoft estimated to cost the state $3.76 billion in lost revenue — Virginia delegate Bob Marshall fought to pass a law just like it the following year.

But months after his bill unceremoniously died in the legislature, Marshall made headlines for a different reason: He was ousted from his seat. After 16 years in office, the Republican who referred to himself as the state’s “chief homophobe” was defeated by Danica Roem, a transgender woman. A former reporter who campaigned on reducing traffic on a congested highway in her district, Roem won by seven points, becoming the first trans state lawmaker in US history.

Following Roem’s groundbreaking victory, LGBTQ advocates saw an opening. Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest advocacy group, sent over 200 volunteers to Virginia to help other Democratic candidates flip the state blue during the 2019 elections. According to National Press Secretary Lucas Acosta, the team knocked on approximately 13,000 doors while providing additional support to local campaigns — which included everything from driving candidates to campaign events to acting as security detail.

“We made the largest group of endorsements that we’ve made for state legislative candidates in our history,” he says, adding that the group invested $250,000 in those races. “It was 27 candidates, and we were working across the state.”

One of the reasons that national LGBTQ advocacy groups invested unprecedented resources in Virginia is that they knew the margins in the legislature were extremely slim. Prior to 2019, Republicans controlled both the Senate and the House of Delegates by just two seats. After winning back both in an election widely viewed as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, Democrats now have a 21-to-19 advantage in the legislature’s upper chambers and a decisive 55-to-45 majority in the House.

Those Democratic gains brought with them landmark representation in the legislature for minority groups. Not only are there are more women and people of color in the Virginia general assembly than ever before, but there are also now five out LGBTQ people filling legislative seats: Ebbin, Roem, Mark Levine, Mark Sickles, and Dawn Adams, with the latter making history as Virginia’s first openly lesbian state lawmaker.

But Ted Lewis, executive director of the youth organization Side by Side, cautions that the passage of Virginia’s nondiscrimination bill isn’t merely the result of a “blue wave” coming in to “sweep LGBTQ protections through.” Advocates have been building support for a nondiscrimination bill for years, even among conservatives. A 2019 survey conducted by the independent polling firm Mason-Dixon showed that 73 percent of Virginia Republicans supported an “update [to] Virginia’s nondiscrimination laws to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination in employment” while just 22 percent opposed such a measure.

Bipartisan support for an LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill was also evident in last week’s vote. The measure earned nine Republican votes in the legislature and four from conservatives the House of Delegates — where GOP leadership had held up progress on the bill for years. Although the legislation passed the Senate in both 2018 and 2019 with Republican backing, Lewis says House leaders “wouldn’t bring the bill forward to be heard.”

According to Lewis, the legislation’s passage after years of stalled attempts sends an overdue message to LGBTQ people in Virginia that there’s a place for them in their own state. The youth population he works with, for instance, have long reported rampant job discrimination when seeking employment. One transgender young person was practically guaranteed a job as a summer camp counselor after acing a phone interview, but when he showed up to meet his prospective employers face-to-face, he was told the position was no longer available. He was “visibly trans,” Lewis says.

It’s been difficult to tell the young people Lewis works with that things are getting better for the LGBTQ community — to borrow a phrase from the national anti-bullying campaign — if Virginia’s laws didn’t reflect that. That’s why he says the bill is not merely about ensuring equal access for queer and trans people in public life; it’s also “suicide prevention.”

“Having a nondiscrimination policy is the possibility of a future for a lot of the young people we work with,” he says. “It’s seeing themselves as equal in the eyes of the law and the state.”

The continued challenges of pro-LGBTQ legislation in the South

While Virginia showed it is possible to pass a nondiscrimination bill in the South, the question remains whether any other state will follow in its footsteps. A statewide LGBTQ civil rights law has stalled in the Kentucky legislature for almost two decades, despite being introduced nearly every single year; meanwhile, in Florida, Republican House Speaker José Oliva recently dismissed the need for inclusive protections. He said anti-LGBTQ discrimination isn’t a “major problem” for the Sunshine State.

“Florida is a tremendously inclusive, immensely diverse state,” said Oliva, who claimed that nondiscrimination laws could open employers up to “burdensome” litigation. There’s no indication, however, that the passage of LGBTQ civil rights legislation has led to an uptick in lawsuits in any of the states where such protections are on the books.

According to Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for Equality Florida, the state is in a similar position that Virginia was before 2019. He says the nondiscrimination bill currently boasts 66 cosponsors from both political parties, the third most of any bill in the legislature. In addition, more than 450 major local and national businesses — including AT&T, Disney World, Marriott, Office Depot, Uber, and Wells Fargo — have signed on to support the legislation.

“This legislation has been introduced in the Florida legislature for more than a decade,” Maurer tells Vox. “It is beyond time and we have the votes to do it. We just need leadership to let us have our day in court — or in the legislature — to make this case.”

While the Human Rights Campaign hopes to help push these bills forward by working to flip other Southern states in the coming years, replicating the strategy that worked so well in Virginia will be difficult in one of the most heavily gerrymandered areas of the country. Six of the 10 most gerrymandered states — Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia — all reside in the South, and nearly all have been dominated by Republicans for years. Kentucky may have elected Democrat Andy Beshear as governor in 2019, but the GOP still swept nearly every other statewide race. The party boasts a near supermajority in both houses of the Kentucky legislature.

One potential bright spot is North Carolina, where a court ruled a congressional district map that heavily favored Republicans was likely in violation of the state constitution and ordered it redrawn before the 2020 primaries. This year also marks the end of the temporary “compromise” bill that replaced North Carolina’s aforementioned anti-trans bathroom law. The agreement nullified all local nondiscrimination ordinances in the state until December 31, 2020, and after that, cities like Asheville and Durham will be free to reinstate their LGBTQ inclusive laws.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, says that advocates in North Carolina are “hopeful that there will be new opportunities to create the kind of protections LGBTQ people need.” However, she cautions that the reality is that the local community “shouldn’t have to rely on the uncertainties of a political process that has really targeted and scapegoated [them].”

“That’s why we believe that continuing to advocate for the swift passage of the Equality Act is really the solution that the South needs, perhaps more than any other region of the country,” she tells Vox, noting that its enactment would guarantee sweeping protections for LGBTQ people in all 50 states.

Given that the Equality Act did not receive a hearing last in a Senate presided over by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrats would need to flip four seats in 2020 to make that a possibility.

While many advocates in the South continue to talk about a nondiscrimination law as if its passage is still years away — if not a generation off — Ebbin has seen firsthand that change is coming. After years of failed efforts to pass any LGBTQ protections at the statewide level, he approached a colleague some years back who had successfully fought to expand civil rights for black Virginians. Ebbin wanted to know what he was doing wrong. “I feel like you’ve gotten so much done in these last six years,” he told his fellow lawmaker. “I’ve gotten nothing done on LGBTQ rights.”

What the colleague told him was that many lawmakers “had never even met a gay person” before they were elected to the legislature, so LGBTQ issues were still new for them. “There’s a lot of rural parts of the state,” Ebbin explains, “and a lot of conservative parts of the state.”

As those lawmakers eventually got to know their LGBTQ colleagues, it slowly broke down barriers in the legislature. The year after Roem was elected, Virginia didn’t introduce a single piece of anti-trans legislation. In so doing, Ebbin’s colleagues also learned there’s nothing to fear from coming out in support of equality. Conservatives are often scared that they will be primaried if they sign their name to a pro-LGBTQ bill, but one Republican lawmaker who backed a nondiscrimination bill in previous years told Ebbin the issue “did not even come up in his reelection campaign.”

“When I first got here, we had people who were hostile to LGBTQ people, then we had people who were personally very welcoming,” Ebbin says. “Now we’ve gotten to the point where people not only have relationships with LGBTQ people, but they know it’s the right thing to do. They don’t want to be left behind by history.”

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