Va. lawmakers, activists vow to defend LGBTQ rights gains

ABOVE: Virginia state Del. Danica Roem. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Virginia General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 amid concerns that Republicans will try to curtail LGBTQ rights.

Republicans last November regained control of the Virginia House of Delegates, and now have a 52-48 majority. Democrats still maintain a 21-19 majority in the Virginia Senate.

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, Lieutenant Gov.-elect Winsome Sears and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares took office Jan. 15. All three defeated their Democratic challengers — Terry McAuliffe, former state Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William County) and outgoing Attorney General Mark Herring respectively — last November.

Democrats, who in 2019 regained control of the General Assembly for the first time since the 1990s, passed a series of LGBTQ rights bills that outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam signed. These include the Virginia Values Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to Virginia’s nondiscrimination law, and a ban on so-called conversion therapy for minors.

Northam in 2020 signed a law that repealed the state’s statutory ban on marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples. Virginia that same year became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Virginia Department of Education in 2020 issued guidelines that are designed to protect transgender and non-binary students.

Youngkin during his campaign against McAuliffe expressed support for Tanner Cross, a gym teacher at a Leesburg elementary school who was suspended from his job after he spoke out against the policy. Youngkin has also said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBTQ rights group in an email to the Washington Blade noted Youngkin has nominated former Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James to become the next Secretary of the Commonwealth. Lamneck notes the Heritage Foundation “has a long history of spreading harmful, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric” and James herself has said the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights laws, is “anything but equality.”

“This is unacceptable,” said Lamneck.

State Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County) last month introduced Senate Bill 20, which would eliminate the requirement that school districts must implement the Department of Education’s trans and non-binary student guidelines. State Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), who in 2018 became the first openly trans person seated in any state legislature in the U.S., on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview that she expects SB 20 “would be dead on arrival” in committee.

“I would strongly encourage LGBTQ folks and our allies and champions to contact their state senators about SB 20, let them know that this is a thing and that they do need to oppose it,” said Roem. “This is a year where if there is a state legislator who introduces anti-LGBTQ legislation we should as a community and as a Democratic Party specifically should really make a statement and defeat that loudly and make a very, very clear statement that as long as we have at least divided government, we are not going back on what we have done to make Virginia one of the most LGBTQ-inclusive states in the country.”

Roem also reiterated her pledge to fight for trans youth in Richmond.

“I will be a brick wall on the House floor, and I will fight my heart out defending trans kids,” she said.

State Dels. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax County) and Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), who are openly gay and lesbian respectively, both won re-election. State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) remains the only openly gay member of the Senate.

Ebbin on Wednesday told the Blade during a telephone interview that Youngkin since his election has not specifically indicated whether he will try to rescind the Department of Education guidelines.

“We have to be vigilant and be weary of executive actions and be ready to combat any,” added the Alexandria Democrat.

Lamneck echoed Ebbin and Roem.

“Given the new political climate in Virginia, we know that many are worried about the future of LGBTQ equality in our commonwealth,” said Lamneck.

They acknowledged the House is “less friendly,” but added the Senate “remains unchanged.”

“We will work with the Senate’s pro-equality majority to act as a crucial back stop against harmful legislation and efforts to roll back our hard-earned wins passed during the last two years,” said Lamneck. “Bills have already been introduced that would weaken both the Virginia Values Act and the Virginia Department of Education’s guidelines for the treatment of transgender students. We can’t allow this to happen. We will continue to build bipartisan partnerships and mobilize advocates to change hearts and minds so that we can prevent any anti-LGBTQ bills from becoming law.”

State Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford County), who, along with former state Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County), co-authored an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, co-chairs Youngkin’s transition team.

Virginia voters approved the Marshall-Newman Amendment in 2006. Roem in 2017 defeated Marshall.

The General Assembly last year approved a resolution that seeks to repeal the Marshall-Newman Amendment. It must pass in two successive legislatures before it can go to the ballot.

Ebbin last month introduced the resolution. He told the Blade that he remains “hopeful” it will pass, but “I’m trying not be over confident.”

A law that requires Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles to offer driver’s licenses with a “non-binary” gender marker took effect in 2020. Roem told the Blade she is considering a bill that would allow marriage certificates with non-binary gender markers.

Roem introduces bill to cap FOIA fees

Virginia legalized marijuana in 2020.

Ebbin said he plans to introduce bills that would further regulate marijuana sales in the state.

Roem has put forth measures that would reform Virginia’s court-appointed adult guardianship system, expand funding for transportation safety measures and cap fees that municipalities can charge journalists who file Freedom of Information Act requests. Roem has also introduced a bill that would expedite the process through which students can receive free meals at school.

“How about instead of singling out and stigmatizing kids … we feed them instead,” she said.

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