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More than 100 attend Equality Virginia lobby day

Advocates from across the state traveled to Richmond

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Equality Virginia, Richmond, gay news, Washington Blade
Equality Virginia, Richmond, gay news, Washington Blade

Equality Virginia supporters gather on the steps of the state capitol building in Richmond on Jan. 29. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

RICHMOND, Va.—Dozens of advocates from across the commonwealth gathered in the state capital on Tuesday for Equality Virginia’s annual legislative lobby day.

They spoke with lawmakers in support of Senate Bill 701, which would ban discrimination against LGBT state employees. Advocates also sought backing for measures that would define bullying in Virginia and require school districts to adopt policies that specifically prohibit students and school employees from engaging in it.

They lobbied against House Bill 1617 that would prohibit publicly funded colleges and universities from discriminating against any student group based on their “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the organization or group’s speech.”

Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish told the Washington Blade during an interview at the Library of Virginia that the measure state Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) introduced “sounds very well-meaning.” He added his organization sees “the flip side of that as saying colleges have to fund organizations that willingly discriminate,” while referring to the controversy over the Boy Scouts of America’s long-standing ban on openly gay scouts and scoutmasters.

“Equality Virginia believes it is not our place to tell private organizations what to do,” Parrish said. “It is our place to say public dollars shouldn’t fund those organizations.”

Aside from advocating for or against specific measures, advocates also attended workshops on a variety of topics that included the lack of legal protections for LGBT Virginians and transgender advocacy in the commonwealth. Congressman Bobby Scott, state Dels. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria) and Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), gay state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Richmond City Council President Charles Samuels are among those who attended a post-lobby day reception at the Library of Virginia.

Parrish also announced that Newark (N.J.) Mayor Cory Booker will deliver the keynote address at Equality Virginia’s annual Commonwealth Dinner in Richmond on April 6.

“It’s an important issue to address — LGBT rights in general,” Fredericksburg attorney Jessica Jeanty told the Washington Blade. She met with state Del. Robert Orrock (R-Spotsylvania) and a legislative aide to state Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) earlier in the day. “I was looking for a way to get involved, especially a way to get involved that’s effective. I think reaching out to state legislators is one of the most effective ways to make a difference in this area.”

The gathering took place four days after the state Senate passed SB 701 by a 24-16 vote margin. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates on Jan. 15 overwhelmingly approved gay interim Richmond Circuit Court Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland’s judgeship after blocking his nomination during a late-night vote last May that sparked outrage among LGBT advocates.

SB 701 faces an uphill battle in the House of Delegates, but state Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) told the Blade during an interview at his capitol office that he remains optimistic about the measure’s prospects in light of Thorne-Begland’s appointment.

“I’d like to believe there’s a new sense of enlightenment in the House,” he said. “I’m hopeful that same sense of enlightenment will continue. The bill is all about fairness; it’s all about making sure that no one in the state workforce should have to worry about being discriminated against because of who they are. And to that end, it’s something that Fortune 500 companies do that call Virginia home, so I’m hopeful the House will look at the totality of the circumstances and see a way to pass it.”

A. Donald McEachin, Henrico County, Virginia, Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Ebbin, who co-sponsored SB 701 with McEachin, said the four Republicans who voted for SB 701 indicate “we may do a little better in the House.”

“The subcommittee of the General Laws Committee we’ll go to has proved a very formidable obstacle in the past,” he conceded, while acknowledging the fact four Republican senators who voted for SB 701 indicate it may fair slightly better in the House than in previous years. “I’ve brought this forward every year since the Kaine administration and I’m committed to continuing to do so. We’re chipping away and I think eventually this will pass; eventually.”

Senate subcommittee approves ‘love shack’ bill

Ebbin spoke with the Blade hours after the Senate Courts of Justice Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 939, which would repeal an 1873 law that criminalizes unmarried couples who live together.

Gov. Bob McDonnell told WTOP radio on Tuesday he supports the so-called “Love Shack” measure in spite of his views toward “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators” he expressed in his master’s thesis he wrote while attending Regent University in Virginia Beach. Ebbin said he remains “confident” that SB 939 will pass in the full Senate in the coming days.

“At this date, the House needs to acknowledge the reality of the 21st century,” he said. “I’m very optimistic they will.”

“Equality Virginia definitely supports getting rid of all these bills that are constitutionally irrelevant,” Parrish added. “We’re for getting all those laws off the books.”

Advocates: Va. LGBT rights movement continues to make strides

A House of Delegates subcommittee earlier this month killed a proposal that would have repealed the commonwealth’s voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but advocates maintain SB 701 and Thorne-Begland’s appointment prove the state’s LGBT rights movement continues to move forward.

“It is definitely progress, especially since both were so difficult,” Jeanty said. “I was shocked to hear that there was any kind of contention about Tracy Thorne-Begland at all, so to see that he finally has a full-time judgeship is great. I think that’s progress. I also think that SB 701 is progress, but I think there’s much more to go. There are many more bills that need to be passed. It’s a little bit of progress, but we still need more.”

Joyce Scher, co-founder of Mothers and Others of Virginia, agreed.

“I’m thrilled about Tracy, just absolutely thrilled,” she told the Blade during the Equality Virginia reception. “Sorry that everybody had to work so hard because he was so worthy of having that job.”

Ebbin, who is the first openly gay person elected to the Virginia Legislature, said he feels his Richmond colleagues have begun to respond favorably to LGBT-specific issues.

“I don’t bring up gay issues with everyone, but I think just being here — and they know who I am, does make a difference and over time things can only get better,” Ebbin said. “People say how can you stand being in Richmond. I say I love being here knowing that I can grab that microphone anytime I want when people say anything that needs to be reacted to. There’s no place I’d rather be than watching Virginia wake up from history.”

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Va. senator introduces anti-transgender student athlete bill

Democrats have vowed to thwart anti-LGBTQ measures in state Senate

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a bill that would ban transgender students from joining school sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Senate Bill 766, which state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) introduced on Friday, would require “each elementary or secondary school or a private school that competes in sponsored athletic events against such public schools to designate athletic teams, whether a school athletic team or an intramural team sponsored by such school, based on biological sex as follows: (i) ‘males,’ ‘men,’ or ‘boys’; (ii) ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; or (iii) ‘coed’ or ‘mixed.'”

“Under the bill, male students are not permitted to participate on any school athletic team or squad designated for ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; however, this provision does not apply to physical education classes at schools,” adds the bill. “The bill provides civil penalties for students and schools that suffer harm as a result of a violation of the bill. Such civil actions are required to be initiated within two years after the harm occurred.”

Kiggans introduced her bill less than a week after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office.

Youngkin during his campaign said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity. Elizabeth Schultz, an anti-LGBTQ former member of the Fairfax County School Board, has been named the Virginia Department of Education’s Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the state House of Delegates. Democrats still control the state Senate, and they have pledged to thwart any anti-LGBTQ bills.

“Let’s be clear: This is part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to exclude trans people from enjoying the benefits of sports like their cisgender peers,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on Friday after Kiggans introduced SB 766. “We won’t tolerate this.”

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Comings & Goings

Hazen inducted into Cooperative Hall of Fame

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Paul Hazen

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected] 

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Paul Hazen on his being inducted into the 2022 Cooperative Hall of Fame.  On receiving the honor, he said, “I am very lucky to be given the opportunity to combine my work in international development with my volunteer cooperative development work in Washington DC.”

Hazen is executive director, U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) and has devoted his career to elevating the cooperative voice domestically and internationally. U.S. co-ops include Ace Hardware, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Sunkist, REI and the Associated Press. Hazen helped establish federal legislation promoting rural co-op development.  

Prior to joining OCDC, he was CEO of Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International. During his 25-year tenure with the organization, he held key positions, including chief operating officer, vice president of public policy, vice president of member services and director of consumer cooperatives.

He worked for Rep. Al Baldus (Wisc.). He was executive director of Rural Housing Inc. in Madison, Wisc., where he developed co-ops and affordable housing projects in rural communities. 

As a volunteer, Hazen formed the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) with 12 congregations in D.C.  In 2020, CPA secured more than $18.7 million in contracts resulting in an investment of $13 million in D.C.-based small businesses owned by people of color.

Ben Finzel

Congratulations also to Ben Finzel, who was inducted into the National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame. Upon receiving the honor, he said “To be recognized by your peers is wonderful; to be honored by them is amazing. I still can’t quite believe I have done enough to be worthy of this recognition, but I know enough to be thankful and appreciative of this high honor. Thank you PRSA National Capital Chapter for including me in such inspiring company; I will be forever grateful.”

Finzel is president of RENEWPR, a D.C.-based public affairs, communications consulting firm. In 2004, he helped launch FH Out Front, the first global LGBTQ communications practice at an international firm, Fleishman Hillard, and served as its first global chair. He started DC Family Communicators, a professional networking group for LGBTQ communications professionals. Finzel served on the Victory Campaign Board of the LGBTQ Victory Fund from 2007 to 2017.

His firm is currently celebrating its seventh year in business. To recognize that accomplishment, Finzel is launching an endowed scholarship at his alma mater, Texas Tech University. His business is certified as an LGBT Business Enterprise by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

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Maryland

Judge rules trans teacher’s lawsuit against P.G. County can go to trial

Gay man files separate case charging discrimination

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Jennifer Eller, gay news, Washington Blade
Jennifer Eller alleges the P.G. County school system subjected her to discrimination and harassment. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

A federal judge in Maryland issued a ruling on Tuesday, Jan. 18, clearing the way for a lawsuit filed by transgender former English teacher Jennifer Eller in 2018 charging the Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools with discrimination and harassment based on her gender identity to proceed to a trial.

In the ruling, Judge Theodore D. Chuang of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied key parts of several motions filed by attorneys representing the P.G. County Public Schools that in effect called for the dismissal of the lawsuit. The motions, among other things, claimed the lawsuit failed to provide sufficient evidence that Eller was subjected to discrimination and harassment, which forced her to resign due to a hostile work environment.

Chuang also ruled against a separate motion introduced by Eller’s attorneys calling for him to issue a summary judgement decision affirming all the lawsuit’s allegations that would have ended the litigation in Eller’s favor without the need to go to trial.

Eller’s lawsuit charges that school officials acted illegally by failing to intervene when she was subjected to a hostile work environment for five years that included abuse and harassment by students, parents, fellow teachers, and supervisors and retaliation by school administrators.

The lawsuit alleges that the school system and its administrators in its actions against Eller violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the nondiscrimination provision of the Prince George’s County Code.

“We think the judge did as best he could,” said Omar Gonzales-Pagan, an attorney with the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, which, along with the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter, are representing Eller in her lawsuit.

“The takeaway is that the case is now in a posture to proceed to trial,” Gonzales-Pagan told the Washington Blade. “The court found that the alleged facts and the information as discovered throughout the case in the discovery process is sufficient to allow a jury to find whether Jennifer Eller was subjected to a hostile work environment and constructive discharge and retaliation unlawfully by the defendants,” he said.

By the term constructive discharge, Gonzales-Pagan was referring to the lawsuit’s charge that Eller was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the alleged abuse she faced on the job.

P.G. County Public Schools officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit on grounds that the school system has a longstanding policy of not discussing pending litigation. However, in its response to the lawsuit in court filings, school system officials have denied Eller’s allegations of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

“For years, I was aggressively misgendered, attacked and harassed in the hallways and even in my own classroom by students, peers and supervisors,” Eller said in a statement released by her attorneys.

“My pleas for help and for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, were ignored,” Eller said in her statement. “The relentless harassment stripped me of the joy of teaching and forced me to resign,” she said. “It is time for Prince George’s County Public Schools to be held accountable.”

The lawsuit says the harassment and discriminatory action against her began in 2011 when she began presenting as female during the school year. It says school officials initially responded to her complaints about the harassment by demanding that she stop dressing as a woman and return to wearing men’s clothes, which she refused to do.

In a separate action, gay former Spanish teacher Jared Hester filed on his own without an attorney a lawsuit in the Maryland federal court charging the P.G. County Public Schools with failing to take action to prevent him from being subjected to discrimination and harassment similar to some of the allegations made in Eller’s lawsuit.

Hester told the Blade that he was subjected to harassment by students who repeatedly called him “faggot,” but school officials, including the principal of the middle school where he taught, refused to take action to stop the harassment.

He provided the Blade with copies of earlier complaints he filed against school system officials with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, and the P.G County Public Schools’ internal Office of Equity Assurance. Each of the three agencies issued rulings against Hester’s complaints, with two of them saying sufficient evidence could not be found to support his allegations.

The EEOC, in a Nov. 3, 2021 “dismissal” notice, told Hester the EEOC “will not proceed further with its investigation, and makes no determination about whether further investigation would establish violations of the statute.” The notice added, “This does not mean the claims have no merit” or that the respondent, meaning the P.G. County Public Schools, “is in compliance with the statutes.”

The notice did not give a reason for why it chose to end its investigation into Hester’s complaint, but it said his filing with the EEOC cleared the way for him to file a lawsuit to further his case against the school system. 

Hester told the Blade he reached out to Lambda Legal to represent him in his lawsuit, but the LGBTQ litigation group declined to take on his case without giving a reason. Gonzalez-Pagan, the Lambda attorney working on the Eller case, said he was unfamiliar with Hester’s request for representation. Another Lambda official couldn’t immediately be reached to determine the reason for its decision not to represent Hester.

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