January 8, 2019 at 11:24 am EST | by James Wellemeyer
Va. activists, legislators gearing up for 2019 legislative session
Virginia, gay news, Washington Blade
The 2019 legislative session in the Virginia General Assembly will begin on Jan. 9, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish says outlawing anti-LGBT discrimination in housing and public employment is one of his organization’s top legislative priorities in 2019.

For the past five years, the Republican-controlled Virginia Senate has passed legislation banning discrimination in government employment. For the past three years, the state Senate has passed the Fair Housing Law prohibiting similar discrimination in housing. However, none of the legislation has gotten past the Virginia House of Delegates.  

This year, Parrish says a majority of delegates in the House support both proposals.

For the past few years, resistance from Republican leadership has prevented the bills from becoming law. In 2018, House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford County) moved the bills to a special committee where they died.

Parrish believes this move from the Republicans “backfired because there ended up being over an hour of testimony from community members on why we need these protections.”

For the pieces of legislation to get past committee this year, they need the backing of one of three Republican delegates representing Virginia Beach. Parrish is optimistic the bills will receive this support given that state senators and city council members from the Virginia Beach area have signaled their approval of the bills.

“We feel like that gives all the necessary support to those delegates to show that their constituents are supportive of these two issues,” he said.

“We know we have a pro-equality majority in the House to pass both of those measures if we can get them to the House floor,” state Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) emphasized.

If these bills were to pass, Virginia would become the first Southern state to have statewide LGBT protections.

Outside of the housing and public employment nondiscrimination proposals, Equality Virginia and pro-LGBT legislators are also looking to reduce barriers to healthcare access for transgender people and remove the same-sex marriage ban from the Virginia constitution. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014 in Virginia, but its ban remains in Virginia constitution. State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the most senior LGBT official in the state Senate, says removing the ban would be “a symbolic gesture but one that we need to take.”

To successfully repeal the constitutional amendment, a bill would need to pass both this year and next year with identical language. Voters would then have the final say on whether or not to redact the mention of marriage from the constitution. “It’s a lot to go through,” Ebbin told the Washington Blade.

Beyond codifying equal marriage rights for LGBT Virginians, Ebbin is hopeful about the chances of a package of LGBT protections supported by Attorney General Mark Herring. The legislation will designate attacks on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as hate crimes.

Ebbin applauds the work Herring has done thus far with the LGBT community. The attorney general, who refused to defend the marriage ban earlier in his career, has held roundtables across the state on hate crimes this past year. “He’s really a pro-equality attorney general who has gone out of his way to try and understand the concerns of our community along with the entire public,” said Ebbin.

Ebbin says he’s optimistic about the prospect of passing protections for LGBT people this session largely because he believes LGBT equality is beginning to gather bipartisan support.

“We’re seeing people with good voting records according to the Family Foundation being willing to depart from their preconceived notions about how they might vote,” Ebbin told the Blade. “There are some Republican legislators in Virginia now who are now voting pro-equality while at the same time maintaining their pro-life and pro-gun stance.”

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