It’s been a historic month for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Virginia.
With Democrats in control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in 26 years, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has signed a raft of LGBTQ protections. Among them: the South’s first ban on so-called conversion therapy, expanded hate crime legislation, protections for transgender students in public schools and a law paving the way for local governments to pass their own anti-discrimination laws.
For Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates in North Carolina, the marathon of pro-LGBTQ legislation just across the border is both inspiring and bittersweet. Many bills identical to those now becoming law in Virginia have been introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly for years and have failed to get so much as a hearing under the current Republican majority.
“My ideal world would be that this would not be a partisan issue,” said Kendra Johnson, Executive Director of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC. “But it has become a partisan issue – rather stupidly.”
Equality NC is a non-partisan organization, Johnson said. When the group brings LGBTQ people to the General Assembly for lobby days, they seek to meet with lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle. So far though, she said, Republicans have staunchly refused to even listen to them.
“Whatever party you are from, if you’re not listening to your constituents and what they need…what are you doing in office?” Johnson said. “To me, it’s a dereliction of duty.”
A fight both personal and political
Lawmakers who have supported further protections agree. For the few openly LGBTQ lawmakers in the state, it goes beyond the political.
“I think Virginia is taking a strong stand that they’re a welcoming, non-discriminatory state and I hope we’ll follow that same mantra,” said Rep. Marica Morey (D-Durham).
Morey, who is a lesbian, has spoken publicly and passionately about the life-altering day when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. As individual states now fight to protect LGBTQ people – and particularly youth – from violence, harassment and discrimination, she said she is hoping North Carolina will soon see the sort of sea change Virginia is now experiencing.
But it’s increasingly clear that’s not going to happen without the political change seen in Virginia, Morey said.
“I think it’s who you elect to represent you,” she said. “As long as we have a Republican majority with five members who introduced HB 65 (which sought to defy U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell ruling legalizing same sex marriage) and describe same sex marriages as ‘parody marriages,’ who use hateful and divisive language, our voters are going to have to decide if that’s the way we want to go or do we want to turn the corner and be a more tolerant, progressive state?”
When Morey was first elected, she thought there would be more debate and more bipartisan legislation. Instead, she said, she’s seen the Republican majority let bipartisan bills die in committee without so much as a debate because they don’t want to allow Democratic lawmakers political victories.
“With just a one vote majority, you are in the driver’s seat – you decide what bills get heard, you decide what moves,” Morey said. “Without it you don’t have the accelerator, the steering wheel or the brakes.”
Rep. Cecil Brockman (D-Guilford) said he agrees.
“I think the current majority’s track record shows that flipping control of the General Assembly is the best way to get LGBTQ legislation heard and passed,” Brockman said. “While what we are seeing in Virginia is encouraging, I don’t think it makes the current legislature more likely to take up any of the same bills.”
Brockman has spoken openly about the discrimination he has faced since coming out as bisexual. With laws combating that kind of discrimination, Brockman said, Virginia is showing other southern states the way.
“I am always in favor of progress on LGBTQ issues no matter where or how they happen,” Brockman said. “Whether it is city, county, state, or the federal level, policies promoting equality are welcome. It is certainly disappointing that North Carolina hasn’t joined in on this, but this [the progress in Virginia] gives us a blueprint on how to move forward and win these battles here at home.”
Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) joked this week that she’s never really thought of Virginia as a southern state, but the recent progress there has made her proud to claim them.
“For me, the progress in Virginia certainly puts hope in my heart,” Dahle said. “I hope we’re going to see this in the rest of the South. I hope this is foretelling the future.”
Fellow LGBTQ people often come to Dahle, who is lesbian, and ask why the legislature can’t make more progress on these issues, she said.
“I have to look at them with tears in my eyes and say, ‘I’m working on it,’” she said.
There are more Republican lawmakers who might be willing to work with Democrats on these issues, Dahle said, but Republican leadership has made it clear certain issues are completely off-the-table.
“That’s not how a government is supposed to work,” Dahle said. “We should be working together for the good of everybody in North Carolina.”
The long road to progress
Vee Lamneck is Executive Director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Virginia.
The progress in the state is worth celebrating, Lamneck said in an interview with Policy Watch this week. But it didn’t come quickly or easily.
“Equality Virginia has been advocating for non-discrimination protections for more than a decade but we’ve been around since 1989, working to move equality forward,” Lamneck said.
“We have worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle,” Lamneck said. “But we did find that we would have bills pass the Senate with significant bipartisan support only to hit a roadblock in the House and not get a hearing.”
The shift of political power certainly cleared those roadblocks, Lamneck said, but the change in Virginians’ attitudes toward LGBTQ issues is attributable to years of hard work by LGBTQ people to educate the public about their lives and the struggles they face.
“We have hosted, just this year, at least seven panels which were designed to create community forums basically to talk about the transgender community,” Lamneck said. “We have seen poll after poll show that the majority of Virginians are ready for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Knowing and understanding the transgender community is where a lot of Virginians could use more education and we worked to do that.”
Equality Virginia worked to hold the forums not just in the capital but around the state, where many Virginians had never met a transgender person, or didn’t know that they had. Transgender people who shared their stories were paid for their labor, Lamneck said, and were willing to open up about intimate details and painful struggles in their lives in order to connect with Virginians who needed to better understand them.
“At the end of the day we’re taking a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering out of the picture,” Lamneck said. “We’re really talking about your neighbor, your co-worker, your friend, and how deeply they would be impacted by these changes.”
After years of struggle, Lamneck said, Virginia should stand as an example to other Southern states of what is possible.
“That’s my hope, certainly — that we can serve as an example that LGBT protections can and should happen in the South,” Lamneck said. “The majority of LGBT people in this country actually live in the South, are raising families in the South. So it’s really important that other states in the South see what we were able to do here in Virginia and feel emboldened by that, feel hopeful by that possibility — that a state just next door can pass these protections and so can other states.”