Many of the desks in the West Virginia House of Delegates have miniature yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that signal the desk is occupied by a Tea Party sympathizer. Many LGBT Americans—particularly in the South – might be inclined to share the righteous sentiment of the Tea Party when confronted with bigoted and petty bills designed to roll back hard-won rights. The reaction to the proposed preemption of all local LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances in West Virginia is evidence of that.
For more than 80 years, Democrats controlled both houses of the West Virginia Legislature, and it was often difficult for equality activists to believe Democrats were doing anything for the LGBT community. Although a state employment and housing discrimination act made it onto an agenda a time or two, there was little advancement. Although a statutory mini-DOMA quickly and quietly passed in 2001, Democrats successfully prevented constitutional amendments against marriage equality. The Democrats generally kept regressive bills off agendas, and were able to keep West Virginia’s constitution clean and free of bigotry.
Everything changed with last November’s election where, in the lowest turnout in 60 years, the GOP won historic victories in both houses of the legislature. Equality activists suspected that bills that had been bottled up and kept off agendas would begin appearing. It did not take long. The deceptively named “West Virginia Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act” was jammed through committee in the House of Delegates in a two-day period. The bill purported to promote uniformity among non-discrimination laws. What it really proposed was rolling back non-discrimination ordinances in the state’s largest cities, undoing decades of work. A retread of the Colorado law struck down by the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans in 1996, this bill is being peddled across the country by organizations like the West Virginia Family Policy Council that have dressed it up as a “commerce” bill.
The backlash was swift. From all across the state, but particularly from the affected municipalities, there was a cry of discontent. The bill attacks two fundamental principals: the right to self-governance of municipalities and the need to ensure equal protections for LGBT citizens. Mayors and councils expressed their fury. At the public hearing two days later, the mayor of Huntington, West Virginia’s second largest city and the home of Marshall University, said his city doesn’t have “the time or luxury should we ever be inclined to exclude anybody from the table … We need all hands on deck.” Generation West Virginia, a statewide organization promoting young professionals across the state was unequivocal: “The last thing West Virginia needs is another reason for talented young professionals to leave the state.”
The good news is that West Virginia communities, businesses and citizens reacted in a way that reinforces what is great about this state. The bill was so repellant that the GOP majority leader in the Senate said, “We have no appetite for any type of a bill that discriminates, provides prejudice or preferences to any type of class in West Virginia.” At the public hearing on the bill, many invoked West Virginia’s state motto: Montani Semper Liberi or “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Opponents of the bill pointed out that the passage was in direct contradiction to the motto.
West Virginia can be conservative to be sure, but there has always been a distinct live-and-let-live attitude. This cynical attempt to roll back protections struck many as more than petty; it is contradictory to our core values. As quickly as it began, the bill was sent back to committee where it was immediately killed in a procedural move. That the opposition to the bill was bipartisan, both in the public sphere and ultimately in the legislature, bodes well for our future.
Don’t tread on us either.
Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) is West Virginia’s first and only openly gay legislator. Prior to winning election, he founded Fairness West Virginia, the state’s LGBT advocacy organization. He is a trial lawyer and lives in Shepherdstown, W.Va., with his partner.