LGBT activists said they were hopeful that the threat of a lawsuit by Democratic members of the Virginia Senate this week would persuade Republicans to share control of the chamber and decrease the chance that it will enact anti-LGBT bills following the GOP gains in last week’s election.
No one disputes the fact that Republicans have gained a one-vote legislative majority in the Virginia Senate after Republican candidates defeated two incumbent Democrats in the 40-member Senate, resulting in a 20-20 split between the two parties.
Under the Virginia Constitution, the lieutenant governor — in this case Republican Bill Bolling — has authority to cast the deciding vote in any tie on bills coming up for a vote, effectively giving Republicans a razor-thin majority in the Senate.
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But Democrats argue that the constitution doesn’t give Bolling authority to vote on non-legislative matters, such as who should be named as chairs of the body’s powerful committees and which party should control the committees. Both sides say the matter could wind up in court if a compromise isn’t reached before the new legislative session begins in the second week of January.
Republicans increased their existing majority in the state’s House of Delegates in the Nov. 8 election. With Republican Robert McDonnell as governor, if Republicans win the dispute over who fully controls the Senate, the conservative-leaning GOP would be in control of all branches of the Virginia government for the first time since the Civil War.
“Virginia is never a place to look for gay-friendly legislation,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political communications at George Mason University and a specialist in Virginia politics. “But what you’re looking at now is a Christian conservative element of the Republican Party that is very much in the driver’s seat going forward.”
Gay Democratic leaders and LGBT activists acknowledge that even if Democrats prevail on the issue of power sharing regarding Senate committees, the Republican majority for votes on legislation means that that the Senate is now far less likely to block anti-gay bills as it did when it was under Democratic control.
“We can certainly expect that there’s going to be a cascade of really unsavory bills flooding over to the Senate from the House as there have been in recent years pertaining to issues of immigration, women’s rights and obviously gay rights, too,” said Nick Benton, editor and publisher of the Falls Church News-Press and board member of LGBT Democrats of Virginia.
“And how many of those bills can be made to die in the Senate at this point becomes a much dicier situation,” Benton said. “There’s no guarantee at all that any of that stuff is going to be beaten back.”
Nearly all news media outlets, including the Washington Post, have reported since last week’s election that Lt. Gov. Bolling’s authority to break a tie vote in the Senate would extend to votes on committee and internal Senate organizational issues as well as votes on bills.
But some Democrats this week said they dispute Republicans’ contention that the lieutenant governor has the power to vote on non-legislative issues.
“Fundamentally, the question is whether under the Virginia Constitution he has the authority to vote on Senate organizational issues as contrasted to legislative matters, substantive matters,” said Claire Gastanaga, legislative counsel and chief lobbyist for Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy group.
“I’m not ready to predict exactly what’s going to happen with respect to the issues that we care about,” she said. “We’ll be pursuing Equality Virginia’s agenda as we always have, and once the organizational decisions are made then we’ll know who we needed to be talking to.”
Since committees and their chairs decide which bills reach the Senate floor for a vote, a determination of which party controls the committees will play a key role in deciding which bills are passed, including a bill introduced in past years calling for banning adoptions by gay and lesbian parents.
Democrats note that when there was a similar 20-20 split between the two parties in the Senate in 1996 and 1997, party leaders worked out a power sharing agreement that enabled Republicans and Democrats to chair different committees.
House of Delegates member Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the Virginia Legislature’s only openly gay member, won his race last week for a seat in the Virginia Senate, becoming the first out gay in that body.
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Ebbin said this week that he, too, is uncertain about the outcome of the dispute over whether Republicans will gain full control over the Senate committees or whether a power-sharing agreement will be reached. In either case, Ebbin said he plans to introduce a bill calling for banning employment discrimination against state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity similar to the bill he introduced earlier this year.
The bill passed in the then Democratic-controlled Senate but died in committee in the GOP-controlled House.
Ebbin said he and LGBT allies in the Senate and House will do all they can to block anti-gay bills in the 2012 legislative session. But similar to Benton, Ebbin said the ability to block hostile bills will be more difficult under a GOP-controlled Senate.
“In the past, we’ve been able to count on the Senate to thwart anti-gay legislation passed by the House,” he said. “We can’t count on the Senate to do that in the next legislative session. I’m not saying that things won’t get killed in the Senate. It’s just that we can’t absolutely count on it.”
Ebbin said that in addition to a possible bill to ban gay adoptions, conservative GOP lawmakers could bring up other hostile bills that either surfaced or had been proposed in past years but died in committee. Among them were calls for banning Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in the state’s public schools and a call for banning colleges in the state from adopting non-discrimination polices related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Ebbin said that although it would be unlikely, anti-gay groups might also attempt to persuade the legislature to repeal the only pro-gay bills it has ever passed – separate measures in 2005 and 2010 that removed an arcane state law that prohibited private insurance companies from selling health and life insurance policies to same-sex couples.
Farnsworth, the George Mason University professor, noted that virtually all Republican candidates in Virginia this year stressed economic and jobs-related issues along with their disagreements with the Obama administration over the economy. He said few if any of the GOP candidates raised social issues, such as gay rights, during their campaigns.
“It will be interesting to see just how the Republican unified government system operates in Virginia,” he said. “The lessons that Republicans have learned from the experiences in Wisconsin and Ohio and other places is that overreaching, offering up polarizing messages can be counterproductive.”
He added, “Careful Republicans with their eyes on the future may be hesitant to go too far in the conservative direction and risk a backlash.”
Are moderate Republicans the answer?
LGBT activists were hopeful that more moderate Republicans would join Sen. Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg), the current minority leader who’s in line to become Republican majority leader. Norment was the only Republican in the Senate to vote for the state employment non-discrimination bill earlier this year when the Democratic-controlled Senate passed the measure.
Tiffany Joslyn, president of LGBT Democrats of Virginia, said she doubts that very many Republican lawmakers in the state would join Norment in backing LGBT supportive bills.
“I have no doubt they will do the same thing that they always do,” she said. “They preach moderation, they preach jobs, and then they get into office and they govern from the far right and to their far-right base.”
Joslyn called on Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia to join her group and Equality Virginia in urging more GOP lawmakers to support legislation seeking to bar LGBT discrimination in the workplace and in other areas.
Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia President David Lampo couldn’t be immediately reached this week. Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the national Log Cabin Republicans organization, said both the national and Virginia group would continue their ongoing efforts to encourage Republican lawmakers to support LGBT equality in all levels of government.
Berle also disputed predictions by gay Democrats that a GOP-controlled Virginia Legislature would result in the passage of anti-gay bills.
“They said the same thing would happen with Gov. McDonnell, that all kinds of bad things would happen,” said Berle. “It didn’t happen.”
He criticized Equality Virginia for taking the position that “only Democrats” could be counted on to support LGBT equality in the state and expressed concern that more LGBT advocates didn’t support gay Republican candidate Patrick Forrest’s race for a state Senate seat in the Northern Virginia city of Reston in this year’s election.
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Gay Democrats said most LGBT activists didn’t support Forrest because he ran against incumbent Sen. Janet Howell, one of the LGBT community’s strongest allies in the Virginia Legislature.
UDC hit with anti-trans discrimination complaint
University accused of misgendering student
A female transgender student at the University of the District of Columbia on Aug. 2 filed a discrimination complaint against the university on grounds that it is violating the city’s Human Rights Act by continuing to use her legal name on school documents and class enrollment lists unless she obtains a legal name change.
Emma R. Alexandra, 28, a part-time student who was admitted to UDC in April, states in her complaint filed with the D.C. Office of Human Rights that she informed UDC officials that she was not ready to immediately undertake a legal name change. She states in her complaint that she has repeatedly asked that her chosen name alone be used on all documents and student lists that can be viewed by fellow students and professors.
She said she understands that her legal name may be needed for legal admissions and academic transcript related documents. But to her dismay, Alexandra told the Washington Blade, UDC officials put in place what they consider a compromise position that identifies her on all public university documents and student class lists by both her legal name and her chosen name.
She said the university began and currently continues to identify her by her male legal name with her preferred name written next to her legal name inside parentheses in this way: Legal First Name (preferred name Emma); Legal last name (preferred name Alexandra).
“This is an egregious solution,” Alexandra told UDC President Ronald Mason Jr. in a July 4 email. “This is the name that appears everywhere now,” she wrote Mason. “Most notable, it’s the name that was displayed to my fellow students and professor during the class I took this summer on Blackboard,” she said, which is an online site like Zoom on which UDC conducts classes.
“This effectively outed me as trans to every other student and my professor,” she told Mason. “I assume the same will continue when I go to campus in the fall and get an ID. My ID will have this name and out me to everyone I show it to,” she wrote. “This is completely unacceptable, disrespectful and dangerous.”
Alexandra said she currently works full time as a Web Application Architect for Bloomberg Industry Group as part of its News Engineering team. She said the company is fully accepting of her using her chosen name without obtaining a legal name change. She said she has enrolled at UDC to take courses she needs to qualify for applying to medical school to fulfill her dream of becoming a psychiatrist.
Under longstanding procedures, the D.C. Office of Human Rights investigates discrimination complaints and usually calls on both parties to consider reaching a conciliation agreement over the complaint if possible. If conciliation cannot be reached, OHR makes a determination of whether probable cause exists that discrimination occurred in violation of D.C. law.
If such a determination is made, the case is sent to the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, which conducts a trial-like hearing that includes testimony by witnesses before it issues a ruling on the case.
In response to a question from the Blade about whether a refusal by a D.C. university to use a transgender person’s chosen name violates the Human Rights Act, OHR Director Monica Palacio said OHR cannot provide legal advice on such a question. But in a statement to the Blade, Palacio said for educational institutions, the Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on 15 protected characteristics, including gender identity and expression.
OHR’s regulations related to educational institutions “prohibit creating a hostile environment which could include deliberately misgendering a student,” Palacio said. “If anyone believes the statute has been violated, they may file a complaint with OHR,” she said. “OHR investigations are confidential.”
Alexandra said she had yet to receive a direct reply to her email message to Mason as of early this week. But last week she was contacted by phone by an official from the university’s admissions office and from Dr. William Latham, UDC’s Chief Student Development and Success Officer on behalf of Mason.
According to Alexandra, the two explained that her legal name was needed on certain legal documents. She said Latham explained that a software system the university uses to manage student records known as the Banner system, doesn’t support preferred names and currently prevents the school from displaying only her preferred name.
The officials said the university planned to upgrade to a newer version of Banner in October and the new system “may” support using preferred names, Alexandra said.
“Overall, I thought this was a really ridiculous conversation where folks from UDC tried to convince me that they are using my preferred name while also stating that they cannot use my preferred name as it should be used, mostly due to limitations of software,” Alexandra told the Blade. “I don’t think the Human Rights Act has an exception for software systems,” she said.
The Blade contacted UDC President Mason by email on July 20, asking him to comment on Alexandra’s concerns and asking him what, if any, problems would be caused if the university used Alexandra’s chosen name rather than her legal name on the various public, external documents and lists in which her legal name is being used.
“In response to your July 20 email, the Office of the Registrar can enter the student’s preferred name in Banner (via all access screen for faculty and staff awareness), however all official documents, such as the academic transcript, will require the use of the student’s official legal name,” Mason told the Blade in a one-sentence response.
His response didn’t address the issue raised by UDC official Latham in his phone conversation with Alexandra in which Latham said the Banner software system couldn’t currently identify Alexandra only by her chosen name. Mason also didn’t respond to the Blade’s question of why UDC could not adopt a policy like the D.C. Public Schools system, which accepts a request by transgender students to use their chosen name without having to obtain a legal name change.
Alexandra, meanwhile, points out that UDC’s refusal so far to allow her chosen name alone to be used on all public university documents and student lists without her legal name being attached to it appears to be at odds with a May 4 open letter Mason released to the university community expressing strong support for using the appropriate pronouns for transgender and gender non-conforming students.
“The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) strives to be an inclusive campus that supports and values all members of our community, including LGBTQIA+, nonbinary, intersex and gender non-conforming students,” Mason says in his letter.
“Choosing to not use or ignore the pronouns someone has requested you to use implies that person shouldn’t and doesn’t exist and does not deserve respect,” Mason wrote in his letter. “Therefore, we encourage all faculty and staff to use pronouns in their email signatures as an act of solidarity and to foster a culture of respect for every Firebird,” he concludes in referring to the symbolic name used for members of the UDC community.
UDC is governed by a 15-member independent Board of Trustees. Eleven of the members are appointed by the D.C. mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council. Three are appointed by UDC alumni and one by students, according to information on the UDC website.
LULAC Lambda announces 2021 scholarship awards
Castro, Javier Rodriguez win $1,000 honors
The D.C.-based LGBTQ Latinx organization LULAC Lambda has announced it has selected two D.C. residents bound for graduate studies in foreign affairs and higher education to receive its 2021 annual scholarship award.
“For a fourth year in a row, LULAC Lambda will provide scholarships to outstanding scholars who come from our LGBTQ+ Latinx community,” said Erik Rodriquez, the LULAC Lambda president, in a statement released by the group. “Our scholarship program will help these scholars achieve their academic goals and reduce their student debt,” Rodriquez said.
The statement says one of the two scholarship awards, for $1,000, will go to Brian Castro, who will begin studies for a master’s degree in the fall of 2021 at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
“The generous scholarship provided by LULAC Lambda will complement my studies by going directly into my tuition costs,” Castro said in the statement. “Though I have been a resident of Washington, D.C., working full-time at a leading public health consulting firm, I am grateful to have received the support from an organization that is also committed to social justice,” he said.
The other scholarship, for $1,300, will go to Victor Javier Rodriguez for his doctoral work in education at Florida State University. The LULAC Lambda statement says Javier Rodriquez’s academic interest lies in “exploring the relationship between school communities and districts’ implementation of anti-racist practice and student success.”
In his own words, Javier Rodriquez said, “A long-term career goal of mine is to affect change at the federal level through the United States Department of Education, in which I would work to address our nation’s education crisis by advocating for equitable policies and practices that improve the outcome for all our students, especially those who are most vulnerable.”
LULAC Lambda says it was founded in October 2014 “to mobilize and strengthen the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities of Washington, D.C. through community and civic engagement.” It is one of 1,000 chapters across the country affiliated with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s largest and oldest Latinx volunteer-based civil rights organization, the group’s statement says.
Missing gay man found ‘alive and well’
Police say Richard ‘Rick’ Woods found in good health
D.C. police announced on Friday that Richard G. ‘Rick’ Woods, a 65-year-old gay man who police said was reported missing and last seen on July 14, has been located. But the announcement doesn’t provide information on where he was found or why he went missing.
Friends who know Woods say he operated for many years an antique wood furniture restoration business in various locations in D.C. The most recent location of his business, friends said, was in Georgetown a short distance from where police said he was last seen on the 1600 block of Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.
“MPD does not publicly disclose the circumstances surrounding a missing person and how they are found, however we do release their flyer as well as a notification when they are located,” said D.C. police spokesperson Brianna Burch. “Mr. Woods was found in good health,” Burch told the Blade.
Police sought help from the public in their initial announcement that Woods was missing. The announcement said he was reported missing to police on Friday, July 23.
Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and LGBTQ rights advocate John Fanning, who said he has been friends with Woods for many years, said he was delighted to hear Woods was found in good condition.
“Rick is known by many in our community,” Fanning told the Blade at the time Woods was reported missing. Fanning said he and others who know Woods stand ready to provide support for him should he be in need of such support.
The Blade couldn’t immediately reach Woods for comment.
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