Last edited: May 14, 2004

Virginia Is for (Straight) Lovers

Washington Post, May 9, 2004

With the passage of the Marriage Affirmation Act last month, the General Assembly has called on Virginians to rally at the parapets for another round of massive resistance to social progress. Like segregationists of decades past, legislators have drawn a pink line in the sand relegating gay Virginians to second-class citizenship. This isn’t just a return to one of Virginia’s most sacred institutions—“separate but equal”—this is 21st-century apartheid, Virginia style.

Despite last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating sodomy laws, Virginia’s legislature refused to repeal its ban on sodomy. Del. David Albo (R-Fairfax) suggested doing so would lead to an unabated rash of sodomy in the streets. Albo’s cries echo the admonitions of his predecessors, who warned against the integration of schools and interracial marriage.

Although Virginia has been home to some of the most horrific examples of gay-related assaults and murders, the Senate committee considering legislation has refused to include hate-based crimes against gays. Likewise, the General Assembly has prevented local governments and school boards in Arlington and Fairfax from making it illegal to fire someone for being gay or to harass a gay student. Perhaps our legislators should talk with some of the students who have been beaten or spit on for being different before they next consider this issue.

With the Marriage Affirmation Act, legislators enacted far-reaching legislation that Virginia’s legal scholars call “recklessly overbroad.” The name of the act itself is misleading. It does nothing to affirm marriage. Gay marriage has been illegal in the commonwealth since 2000, and civil unions have never been recognized in Virginia. Even so, the act goes further than outlawing civil unions: It prohibits members of the same sex from entering into any “arrangement” that “purport[s] to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage.”

It is precisely because Virginia does not recognize civil unions that gay Virginians enter into these “arrangements.” They take the form of wills, medical directives and custody agreements, just to name a few. For gay Virginians, contracting for all of these rights was once a difficult and costly process; now it is illegal and impossible.

Despite the painful lessons of the past, the General Assembly has chosen to take the path of ignorance and put the commonwealth on a course of backward thinking. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind as that becomes more developed [and] enlightened.” Yet Virginia has often led the charge to ignore this advice from its most revered founding father.

Before we pull up the welcome mat for gay Virginians for good, we should consider the costs and consequences of this discrimination. Are we, as a commonwealth, ready to write another chapter in our history of intolerance? Will we accept the simple truth that gays are deserving of fundamental human rights or will we once again rush to the parapets to defend the commonwealth against enlightenment?

—Tracy Thorne
is a lawyer in Richmond and is vice chair of Equality Virginia, an organization devoted to seeking equality for gay and lesbian Virginians.

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