January 15, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
BREAKING: Va. House of Delegates confirms gay judge
Law gavel, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo via Wikimedia)

The Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday voted 66-28 to approve gay interim Richmond Circuit Court Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland’s judgeship.

“Equality Virginia is pleased that the House of Delegates could see that Thorne-Begland is a qualified candidate with integrity and a long history of public service,” Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish said in a statement. “Thorne-Begland has served his country and his city with honor and unquestioned competence first as a Navy pilot and then as a prosecutor.”

The vote took place after members of the General Assembly Committee of Judicial Appointments on Monday certified Thorne-Begland and more than 40 other judicial nominees.

The House of Delegates last May blocked Thorne-Begland’s nomination to the Richmond General Court after state Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County) alleged he misrepresented himself when he failed to disclose his sexual orientation when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the late 1980s. (He is among the 28 delegates who voted against Thorne-Begland’s election.)

Thorne-Begland, who came out during 1992 “Nightline” interview in which he criticized the Pentagon’s ban on gay servicemembers, received an honorable discharge two years later.

The Richmond General Court in June appointed Thorne-Begland on an interim basis because lawmakers failed to fill the vacancy, but state Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) questioned his previous activism during the General Assembly Committee of Judicial Appointments hearing.

“There was a lot of confusion last year about how your oath and your activism were both present or not present or either or how one tread upon the other—or didn’t,” Gilbert said. “That’s one of the reasons I didn’t vote in your previous election because those questions were not answered for me and I feel like they’ve been satisfactorily answered for me.”

Thorne-Begland responded.

“When I think of an activist, I think of someone—the tree hugger who chains themselves to a tree in the redwood forest, someone who chains themselves to a nuclear facility, wants it shut down or someone who conducts sit-ins in the halls of this legislature or on the steps of the capitol as we saw last year,” he said, as captured by Equality Virginia in a video it posted online. “Those are individuals who are willing to advance their cause through acts of civil disobedience. They will violate the law, violate regulations, perhaps violate their oath. I didn’t take those actions. There were members of the armed forces who spoke up against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ wore their uniform and chained themselves to the White House fence. That is an act of civil disobedience. It’s a violation of order and it’s a violation of your oath as an officer. I understand that people may see what I did as activism, but you can make darn sure that I did not take the steps that I did without reading the regulations, without consulting lawyers and making sure that I was not just following the letter of the law but the spirit of the law to say this policy hurts. It hurts good people and we’re not here to litigate the propriety of the military’s old policy… of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ or its repeal, but I want you to understand that that’s why I did what I did. I did it within the framework of the rules that had been laid to me.”

Thorne-Begland, who is also a former Equality Virginia board member, also discussed his involvement with the LGBT advocacy group.

“Since I left the military, I’ve worked with Equality Virginia and I advocated for such radical things as expanding the right to health care for someone to be able to get insurance for their partner,” he said. “I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t one day want the opportunity to marry my partner. We married 15 years ago in an Episcopal church across the street from our house. I’d like that to happen, but that’s not my role as a judge. I will well and dutifully follow the rules, the laws and the regulations. I know that when I put on a black robe and even when I take that robe off and go home that I am held to a different standard of an everyday citizen.”

Parrish stressed the House of Delegates’ initial vote against Thorne-Begland’s nomination “made embarrassing national headlines.”

“We’re glad the House of Delegates took a second look at his candidacy and this time the decision was based on his qualifications and not on who he is or who he loves,” he said. “While Thorne-Begland has been given another opportunity, without employment protections, most Virginians do not get a second chance at their jobs after being fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

2 Comments
  • Tracy is one of the greatest heroes in the long fight to end the military ban. Unlike others later who would hide behind fake names, never showing their faces until after repeal, in May of 1992, when he was only 25, Tracy, a highly rated Navy Lt. and “Top Gun,” outed himself on national TV, the same day a similar hero, Navy Petty Officer Keith Meinhold did, and within hours the Navy removed his “call sign” from the side of his plane. This was even before Bill Clinton had secured the Party’s nomination, though some efforts were already underway in Congress to overturn the pre-DADT ban. Like Leonard Matlovich years before, he and Keith were among the very few to ever volunteer to challenge the policy, followed by Zoe Dunning, Justin Elzie, and Joe Zunigao in 1993. Tracy was the first officer. The next spring, he was one of several gay vets on the five-week, 32-city cross-country bus Tour of Duty to drum up public support. He was one of two against the ban out of 17 witnesses that demagogue Sam Nunn allowed to testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at Norfolk Naval Base, a process Tracy aptly characterized as Nunn’s dog and pony show where he was jeered by 1000 sailors and Marines. To wild applause and laughter, infamous racist Senator Strom Thurmond told him, "Your lifestyle is not normal. It's not normal for a man to want to be with a man or a woman with a woman,” asking if he had ever “considered getting help from a medical or psychiatric standpoint.” A court reinstated him after his discharge but, despite his exemplary record and the millions of dollars spent to train him, he was discharged again under DADT, the Supreme Court refusing to hear his appeal, while Keith’s court-ordered reinstatement was not appealed beyond the Circuit level.

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