February 28, 2019 at 6:00 am EDT | by James Wellemeyer
2019 Va. legislative session leaves LGBT activists disappointed
Virginia, gay news, Washington Blade
The 2019 legislative session in Virginia that ended on Feb. 24, 2019, has left LGBT activists disappointed. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Virginia General Assembly’s 2019 session that ended on Feb. 24 has left many LGBT rights advocates disappointed.

Equality Virginia, the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT groups had hoped 2019 would be the year the Virginia House of Delegates would pass laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and public employment.

For a fourth year, bills prohibiting such discrimination passed in the Virginia Senate with record support. The housing bill went forward with a 13-1 vote, and the public employment legislation passed with an 11-3 vote.

“Seeing the housing bill come out yesterday with the support of everyone except [state Sen. Dick Black] shows good momentum that people on both sides of the aisle understand that these protections are necessary,” Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish said at the time of the vote.

Recent polling indicates more than half of Virginia Republican voters favored the bills. This statistic made many activists hope the House would pass the pieces of legislation.

To bolster conservative support further, Equality Virginia enlisted state Del. Roxanne Robinson (R-Midlothian) to sponsor one of the House bills and launched a campaign titled Virginia Beach for Fairness in one of the most conservative areas of the state.

In the lead-up to the 2019 legislative session, the campaign sent postcards from Virginia residents to House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights). Equality Virginia hoped the stories of individuals who have faced discrimination due to their LGBT identity would convince Republican politicians that anti-discrimination laws are necessary.

The pieces of legislation did initially make it past the House Rules Committee. But the campaign ultimately failed as Republicans removed the bills from the House General Laws Committee’s docket, killing the pieces of legislation.

“We had such a strong hand this year that they wouldn’t give the bills a hearing, which has never happened in the 11 years that I have been in front of the general assembly with our non-discrimination legislation,” Parrish told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.

Soon after the bills failed, Equality Virginia announced its intention to continue pushing for the legislation in the future despite the loss. “We lost this one but make no mistake … we will keep fighting for the community and we won’t stop,” the organization tweeted.

Beyond the defeat of the nondiscrimination bills, some pro-LGBT legislation and policies did see success.

The House and state Senate passed a bill that will make the state’s surrogacy laws gender-neutral, removing the words “husband” and “wife” from the existing legislation and allowing an unmarried individual to be an “intended parent.”

Danica Roem, the only openly transgender member of the General Assembly, wrote that the bill will make it “easier for LGBTQ parents to have kids.”

“I’m grateful that the General Assembly took steps to update existing laws to recognize all the families that exist in Virginia,” Parrish said.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the only openly gay state senator in Virginia, led an effort to kill a bill that would have banned the physical aspects of conversion therapy while keeping so-called “talk therapy” legal for minors.

Ebbin said an estimated 350,000 LGBT people in the U.S. have undergone some sort of therapy to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Ebbin claimed “talk therapy is a big part of the problem” and said he didn’t believe a ban on only the physical aspects of conversion therapy would put much of dent in the practice.

Soon after the defeat of the legislation, the Virginia Board of Counseling voted to issue guidance that will ban licensed counselors from engaging in any sort of conversion therapy. The board became the second state board under the state Department of Health Professions to push back on conversion therapy after the Board of Psychology commenced a similar effort a month prior.

2019 is an election year in Virginia, with all seats in the state Senate and the House up for grabs.

Ebbin and Parrish are hoping the election brings a change in leadership in the House.

“We will be spending nine months doing everything we can to make sure there is new leadership in the House of Delegates in 2020,” Parrish told the Blade.

“I’m more motivated than ever for this campaign season and to change up the makeup of the House,” Ebbin added. “And I think that we won’t be able to get our bills to the governor’s desk until then.”

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