Equality Virginia CEO Jon Blair said the two bills expanding workplace discrimination protections and permitting employee life insurance benefits for domestic partners were the lobby group’s top priorities with the best chance of passing in 2010.
Other bills to be considered by committees, but with a more doubtful future, include extending reproductive technology access to unmarried couples.
After a series of Assembly sessions where attempts were made to further restrict the rights of LGBT Virginians, including the successful constitutional amendment banning same-sex relationship recognition, it appeared to LGBT rights lobbyists that no further attempts were being planned this session.
“The atmosphere is not perfect, however it is imminent,” Blair told DC Agenda. “Equality is going to happen in Virginia and the handful of people who are trying to hold it down will only be successful for so long.”
Blair’s big-ticket item is passing a bill barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, enshrining in law former Gov. Tim Kaine’s executive order that incoming Gov. Bob McDonnell declined to continue.
Like the executive order it will replace, if passed, the workplace protection will only cover public employees. Blair hoped, though, that step would be just the start.
“Virginia is the only state in the nation where it is 100 percent legal to fire someone based on their perceived sexual orientation. Protected classes are race, gender, creed — those kinds of things,” he said.
“This [bill] means every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Virginian should be protected in the workplace from being fired based on their sexual orientation. This is public employers this year.”
The lobby group’s second priority this year is a group life insurance bill that would allow insurers and employers to mutually agree upon any group of people they’re willing to insure.
“Virginia is quirky in having the Dillon Rule,” Blair said. “Right now insurers want to provide life insurance to Virginians and employers want to provide life insurance to Virginians, but they do not have express permission from the state. Until they have permission from the state, they are not able to do that because the Dillon Rule prevents that.”
Virginia is the last state to have kept the court-authored law dating back to the 1860s, which limited the powers of municipal corporations to only those granted by state legislatures or where the state has not defined its own powers in that area. Local government entities are just some of the employers that have sought to provide life insurance to domestic partners, but were thwarted by state law.
“Employees want it, employers want it, and insurers want it, and all we need is the General Assembly to bless it,” Blair said. “We’re not just talking about GLBT people here. Any person who has an otherwise qualified adult in their household who they want to provide insurance to, including straight couples.
“I’m the perfect example. I’m straight and engaged. Until my fiancé and I are married, I can’t provide life insurance to her. If you don’t think that impacts where she chooses to work, you’re crazy.”
Like the federal Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, supporters say lack of action in the matter hurts the government and the state.
“This isn’t just about recruiting new employees, either,” Blair said. “There are companies here that have more than one major headquarters and they cannot promote employees from one of those offices to their main headquarters here because employees will refuse the promotion based on losing their benefits. Because when they live in Montreal or Seattle or wherever they are allowed to provide benefits to those partners and when they move here they lose them.”
The task of lobbying to get both bills passed falls primarily to Virginia Equality’s chief counsel, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, a 24-year veteran in the assembly.
“Given that the business community has made it clear the life insurance bill is a common sense piece of legislation and voters made it clear that non-discrimination is an issue they’re in agreement should be a policy of the Commonwealth, we shouldn’t have any problems getting these bills through,” she said.
If that sounds too optimistic, Guthrie Gastañaga said she wishes it didn’t.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen bills people have agreed to co-patron a bill they’ve ended up voting against, and they’re just as likely to come to you and say I’ll vote for it on the floor, but I’m not in a position to co-patron it.
“I’m not counting any chickens before they hatch, but I’m sitting on a bunch of them and keeping them really warm in this cold weather.”
The life insurance bill is similar to a previous law passed in 2005 that extended the rights of employers to offer health insurance to domestic partners. That law passed by just one vote in the state House, which Guthrie Gastañaga says validated the lobby group’s approach to working with both parties.
Virginia Equality came under fire for that bipartisan approach to lobbying when it continued to endorse Del. Tom Rust, a Republican, over a Democratic candidate with strong support from the LGBT community.
But the relationship building has apparently paid off. Rust’s office confirmed to DC Agenda that the lawmaker will introduce the life insurance bill again this session.
Blair said the arguments already appealed to Republican principles.
“When you explain the life insurance bill is revenue neutral and won’t cost employers anything, that means something,” he said. “When you can say a comprehensive non-discrimination policy is good for business and employers recruiting employees — and 88 percent of fortune 500 companies in Virginia already voluntarily have a non-discrimination policy because they on their own decided it was a good idea — that means something.”
The state’s only openly gay delegate, Adam Ebbin, a Democrat, noted that he felt there would be “more than one Republican” joining him in supporting both bills.
“The insurance industry and business community very much support this. If people see the advantage of this bill for a wide variety of potential policy beneficiaries, I think it can pass.”
Conservatives blame pro-trans policy after assaults in Loudoun schools
‘Gender fluid’ 15-year-old accused of attacking female students
The Loudoun County, Va., public school system’s recently adopted policy of allowing students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity has come under fire over the past two weeks by outraged parents and conservative political activists following reports that a 15-year-old “gender fluid” boy allegedly sexually assaulted two girls in different high schools.
The parents of one of the girls released a statement through the Virginia-based Stanley Law Group blaming school officials for failing to put in place safeguards to prevent the boy, who they say was dressed in a skirt, from entering the girl’s bathroom to assault their daughter at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., on May 28.
The statement accuses Loudoun County Schools officials and the Loudoun County Board of Education of failing to take steps to prevent the same 15-year-old boy from allegedly sexually assaulting another female student at Broad Run High School, also located in Ashburn, on Oct. 6 in a vacant classroom.
School officials acknowledge that the boy was transferred to the second school after law enforcement authorities released him from a juvenile detention facility following his arrest for the first case, in which the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office said he was charged with two counts of forceable sodomy against his female victim.
“The sexual assault on our daughter and the subsequent sexual assault by the same individual were both predictable and preventable,” the parents’ statement says. “Subsequent to the sexual assault on our daughter, Loudoun County Public Schools formalized the policy regarding restroom use that was easily exploitable by a potential sexual assailant,” the statement continues.
“Because of poor planning and misguided policies, Loudoun Schools failed to institute even minimal safeguards to protect students from sexual assaults,” says the statement.
Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler apologized at an Oct. 15 news conference for what he acknowledged was the school systems’ mishandling of the two sexual assault cases. He noted that school officials should have publicly disclosed the two cases or at least alerted parents at the time they occurred. But he said a federal civil rights law known as Title IX that mandates how schools must respond to cases of sexual harassment appeared to prevent Loudoun school officials from initially disclosing the two cases of sexual assault until they were investigated by law enforcement authorities.
Ziegler said the school system was revamping its disciplinary procedures and its interaction with the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office to ensure that parents and students are alerted to potential danger similar to the cases where the 15-year-old boy allegedly assaulted the two female students.
Meanwhile, school officials and the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Loudoun have pointed out that law enforcement officials have yet to confirm whether the 15-year-old boy charged in the two cases was actually dressed in women’s clothes during the first incident or whether he is trans or gender fluid.
Equality Loudoun’s president, Cris Candice Tuck, released a statement to the Washington Blade on Oct. 18 that she said was the first official known statement responding to the Loudoun school controversy from an LGBTQ organization.
“In light of the reporting of recent sexual assault allegations, the Board of Directors of Equality Loudoun wishes to extend our deepest sympathies to the victims of these heinous attacks and their families,” the statement says. “Equality Loudoun advocates for due process and justice for the victims regardless of whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” the statement continues. “Such actions have no place in our community, and Equality Loudoun does not condone any form of sexual violence, assault, or harassment,” it says.
“However, the accusations that the alleged perpetrator of these assaults is transgender or genderfluid have so far been unverified,” the Equality Loudoun statement asserts. “Attempts to shift blame of this incident to any individual, group, or policy – other than the alleged perpetrator – does a grave disservice to the victims of these crimes and already marginalized youth in our community.”
The statement adds, “We remind those advocating for change to the laws and policies that the initial assault predated any enactment of Policy 8040 by almost 4 months.”
The Equality Loudoun statement was referring to the fact that the Loudoun County School Board did not vote to approve the school system’s trans nondiscrimination policy until August of this year, more than three months after the first of the two sexual assault incidents occurred.
The policy, among other things, allows transgender and genderfluid students to use the school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. The policy also requires that teachers, school administrators and fellow students address a trans or genderfluid student by their chosen name and pronouns.
“Inadvertent slips in the use of names and pronouns may occur,” the policy states. “However, staff or students who intentionally and persistently refuse to respect a student’s gender identity by using the wrong name and gender pronoun are in violation of this policy,” it states.
The statement says that rumors of a bathroom “pilot” program that predated the official approval of Policy 8040 that would have allowed female trans or genderfluid students to use the girls’ bathrooms “are simply untrue” and were never put in place.
In a separate statement to the Blade, Equality Loudoun’s Cris Candice Tuck challenged claims by some parents and conservative political activists, some of whom are supporting Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAulliffe, that the trans nondiscrimination policy is placing students at risk for sexual assault.
“The adoption of nondiscrimination policies are in no way endangering students,” Candice Tuck said. “Across the country, sexual assaults have occurred in schools for decades before any transgender inclusive policies were passed,” she said. “And in those counties and states where such protections have passed in recent years, there has been no verified incidence of anyone abusing such policies to commit such attacks in schools.”
Candice Tuck added, “The focus should be on improving systems of reporting, coordination, and investigation, protecting the victims of these attacks, and creating safer school environments by creating modernized areas and bathrooms that increase protection for all students, including LGBTQ+ students who are statistically more likely to be the victim of such a crime.”
D.C. rejects request by gyms to lift mask mandate
LGBTQ-owned venues sign letter calling requirement ‘devastating’ for business
Owners of two LGBTQ-owned D.C. fitness studios and one gym signed on to a joint letter with the owners of six other similar businesses urging D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. Laquandra Nesbitt to lift a city mandate requiring patrons of gyms and fitness studios to wear masks.
The Oct. 4 letter, written by gay businessman Bryan Myers, the CEO and president of a chain of local fitness studios using the trademark name of [solidcore], states that the mask mandate, which applies to people who are fully vaccinated for the coronavirus, is based largely on outdated data pertaining to gyms and fitness studios collected prior to the widespread availability of the COVID vaccine.
“More relevant data to inform decision-making would be to study the data from two, large Northeastern cities that have opted to allow fitness classes to continue with the requirement of vaccination in lieu of a mask requirement,” the letter states. “In both New York City and Philadelphia, which have opted for this approach, we have not seen an increase in the trajectory of the Delta variant,” Myers says in the letter.
In the last week of July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation that cities and local jurisdictions with 50 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents per week, which at that time included D.C., should ask residents to voluntarily resume wearing masks indoors. That same week, Bowser announced she would go one step further by mandating the indoor use of masks in most public places, including gyms and fitness spas or studios.
Bowser and Nesbitt said their intention was to take immediate steps to curtail the spread of the coronavirus so that the city would not be forced to return to the full shutdown mode, including the closing of businesses, that the mayor lifted earlier this year.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced they would ask residents of their states to consider using masks in crowded indoor spaces as recommended by the CDC, but said they would not require mask use.
In their letter to Bowser and Nesbitt, the gym and fitness studio owners called on the mayor to provide the same exemption to their businesses as the city has provided for restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, which requires masks except when patrons are eating and drinking.
“While it is true that bars, restaurants, and clubs technically have to follow the same guidelines, we know that in practice, these venues have been granted exceptions by D.C. Health,” the letter says. “On any given night, you can find hundreds of individuals crowded into a U Street bar, at a Capitol Hill restaurant, or thousands at a performance or party at The Anthem enjoying themselves – singing, dancing and physically exerting themselves, shouting – maskless – so long as they have a drink somewhere nearby,” says the letter.
“And to be unequivocally clear, we are not advocating that there is anything wrong with what is happening in other industries or that there be a change to the management of those industries/venues,” the letter continues. “We are simply advocating that we be treated the same as they are.”
The letter adds, “Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the mask mandate for fitness studios and gyms has resulted in devastating financial impact to these businesses – many of which are small locally owned.”
It says patronage has dropped 50 percent for some of the fitness centers and gyms since the mayor’s mask mandate took effect July 29. It points out that the drop in customers comes at a time when many of these businesses have spent thousands of dollars and in some cases hundreds of thousands to upgrade their ventilation and filtration systems and other structural steps to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
Myers told the Washington Blade in a statement that neither the Department of Health nor the mayor’s office replied directly to the gym and fitness studios’ letter.
Channel 7 News reported that in response to its request for the city’s reaction to the gym and fitness studios’ concerns, the Department of Health released a statement saying, “D.C. Health’s stance is that persons should wear masks in gyms and during this time [we] do not have plans to change our stance on this guidance.”
In his statement to the Blade, Myers said the D.C. gym and fitness studios were frustrated and disappointed that the city at this time is not open to reconsidering the mask mandate for gyms and fitness studios, many of which he said are barely surviving.
“This mandate is directly affecting the livelihoods of residents of the District, many of whom are women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ in a policy that is simply not equitable, and is steering residents away from services that can help improve the overall health of our community,” Myers said.
Heather Mizeur congressional campaign raises more than $1M
Former Md. delegate challenging Andy Harris
Heather Mizeur has raised more than $1 million in her campaign against anti-LGBTQ Republican Congressman Andy Harris in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District.
“No candidate in #MD01 of either party, incumbent or challenger, has ever hit the $1M milestone this early in the election cycle,” Mizeur tweeted on Oct. 6.
The Victory Fund in an Oct. 8 press release said 80 percent of this $1 million came from Maryland-based donors, “a sign the district is ready for new representation.” And Mizeur continues to outpace Harris, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission that say she raised $717,445 for the cycle ending June 30, while Harris raised $425,288.
“Andy Harris has taken every opportunity to attack and vilify trans individuals, trying to score political points with his base at the expense of the safety of some of his constituents,” Mizeur told the Washington Blade.
In 2014 Harris made the Human Rights Campaign’s “Hall of Shame” for proactively working “to undermine existing legal protections and promote anti-LGBT discrimination.”
“In contrast, the LGBTQ community knows me for my record,” Mizeur said. “And knows I’ll always lead with compassion and stand up for civil and human rights. I think the 1st District will respond to my message of respect and understanding.”
Mizeur, who now lives on the Eastern Shore with her wife, served on the Takoma Park City Council. Mizeur was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates for eight years.
In 2014, she launched a long-shot, grassroots campaign for governor where she finished a strong third in the Democratic primary, despite being outraised by better-known opponents.
But Mizeur also said she is aware of the challenges her team faces in taking on a well-entrenched Republican in a solidly conservative district.
The Cook Partisan Voter Index in 2017 rated the district as R +14, meaning the previous two presidential election results in the district skewed 14 percentage points more Republican than the national average.
“We have over $760,000 in the bank, and we’ve outraised him during our time in the race,” Mizeur said. “We’re raising the money we need to go toe-to-toe with Andy Harris next year.”
The Baltimore Sun in February reported Harris was “flush with campaign cash” mostly due to a 2010 redistricting that “packed” the area with Republican voters to increase Democrats’ chances in other district races.
“Yes, Andy Harris has over $1 million in the bank, stockpiled over a decade in office,” Mizeur said. “But in the short time I’ve been in the race, we’ve cut significantly into his cash on hand advantage.”
Harris has represented the 1st Congressional District—which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford Counties—since 2011 and easily fended off most challenges with at least 60 percent of the vote. These challengers include Mia Mason, a transgender military veteran, who ran against him in 2020.
The 2010 redistricting made Harris’ seat safe enough not only to donate nearly a third of his war chest to conservative groups and candidates, such as U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), but to openly court controversy himself.
Harris last year openly defended then-President Trump’s discredited efforts to overturn the 2020 election. And in December he signed onto an amicus brief supporting a failed lawsuit contesting the presidential election results.
This year he downplayed the violence of the Jan. 6 insurrection in which numerous police officers were attacked, members of Congress were threatened, and the U.S. Capitol was vandalized.
Mizeur told the Blade that while Harris’ actions regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection were the catalyst for her challenging his seat, she feels the district is changing and he no longer represents their interests.
“Our supporters know he’s been embarrassing Maryland in Congress for far too long, and that some of his actions have shown he’s completely unfit to serve in public office, regardless of ideological views,” Mizeur said. “They want someone who will bring compassionate leadership and innovative thinking back to the first district. And that’s appealing to people across party lines.”
Maryland’s primary election is June 28, 2022, and its general election follows on Nov. 8.
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