Virgina House Oks Sodomy Bill
Legislation Would Reduce Penalty To Misdemeanor
February 18, 2000
By Bill Roundy
A bill to reduce the penalty for oral sex in Virginia squeaked by the House of
Delegates on Tuesday by a single vote, and it is now on its way to a Senate committee. The
bill passed with a vote of 50-49, with the Houses one independent delegate, Lacey
Putney (Bedford), not voting.
House Bill 718, proposed by Del. Karen Darner (D-Arlington), is the first bill
addressing Virginias "Crimes Against Nature" law, which makes any act of
oral or anal sex a felony in Virginia a felony, to ever make it out of committee in the
Virginia legislature, let alone to clear a chamber.
"This is very exciting and disheartening in the same breath," said Shirley
Lesser, the executive director of Virginians for Justice, a statewide group that lobbies
for Gay civil rights.
Despite the close vote, Virginians for Justice lobbyist David Scoven says that the bill
actually had widespread support in the House. Many legislators, however, were reluctant to
go on the record and vote for the bill, he says.
"Ninety-five percent of [the delegates] want it to pass, but they didnt want
to take the heat for it if they didnt have to," said Scoven.
"This is a bill that lessens the penalty for sodomy," Lesser said, "and
our ultimate goal is to repeal the Crimes Against Nature law for consenting adults."
HB 718 seeks to reduce the penalty for consensual sodomy between adults from a Class 6
felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, to a Class 3 misdemeanor, with a maximum
penalty of a $250 fine. Reducing the penalty from a felony will remove some of excesses of
the sodomy law, so those convicted of having oral sex would no longer lose the right to
vote or hold professional licenses.
Darner spoke in support of the bill during its second reading on the floor of the House
on Feb. 14, the Associated Press reported.
"Lets wake up to reality and make Virginia for lovers again," Darner
told her colleagues on the House floor, referring to the states tourism slogan.
Darner also argued that the law is unrealistic, because it makes a felony of something
that occurs "every single day in the commonwealth."
Legislative efforts in the past have focused on repealing the provisions of the law
that applied to adults, but VJ felt that that the less ambitious bill might get more
support from conservative legislators who did not want to appear to be decriminalizing Gay
The GOP recently took control of both legislative houses in Virginia, and Gov. James
Gilmore, also a Republican, has been known pressure legislators who stray from the party
"You have to understand this in the context of the enormous pressure that the
Republican leadership puts on young Delegates," says Scoven.
Several delegates told the VJ lobbyist that if the sodomy penalty reduction bill had
been in jeopardy, they would have changed their votes to make sure that it passed. Once
the bill had enough votes to pass, however, the legislators did not need to expend their
political capital in voting for it.
The bill had earlier passed the House Courts of Justice Committee with a vote of just
12-11, and three of the Republican delegates who voted to approve the bill while in
committee went on to vote against the bill on the floor. Those delegates were Dave Albo of
Fairfax, Morgan Griffith of Salem, and Paul Harris of Rockingham.
"Its hard to know what they were thinking, but we do owe them a certain
amount of thanks" for getting the bill out of committee, said Scoven.
"A lot of people were looking out for us as best they could, or as best as they
thought they could," he added.
Scoven, who is a new lobbyist for VJ this year, said he thinks that his approach may
have also helped the penalty reduction bill along.
"I dont stand up and talk about an issue solely from a Gay and Lesbian
perspective," he says, especially in regards to the Crimes Against Nature law.
"Thats something that affects everyone."
While testifying before the House Courts of Justice committee, Scoven emphasized the
discrepancy in the law between the penalty for sodomy, a felony, and the penalty for
prostitution, a misdemeanor.
"Its a felony, unless youre paying for it, in which case its a
misdemeanor," he said. That argument, Scoven said, helped to sway several of the
delegates, although, as usual, some delegates continued to voice their opposition to any
change in the law.
"[Rep.] Dick Black [R-Loudoun], gave his basic theres going to be oral
sex in the streets, speech," said Scoven. Black has been a consistent opponent
of Gay civil rights bills.
If the bill passes the Senate and is signed by the governor, it could help efforts next
year to entirely repeal the provisions of the Crimes Against Nature law that apply to
consenting adults. The bill, as written, preserves the felony requirements for acts of
incest or bestiality, but moves the language regarding oral and anal sex to a separate
section, where it could be more easily excised.
"There are still some problems with this bill, and should this actually pass, then
next year well be leveraging those problems," Lesser said. "But this is
far from a done deal."
The bill will now go to the Senate Courts of Justice committee, where its fate is
"We understand that the Senate Courts of Justice committee is loaded with
conservatives," said Scoven, "so we have to think about what we can do to get
them on board."
VJ has urged its members to call their senators to encourage them to vote in favor of
the penalty reduction bill.
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