Last edited: February 14, 2005

Virginia Sodomy Bill Defeated

Hate Crimes, Employment Legislation Also Dies

Washington Blade, February 25, 2000

By Bill Roundy

A bill to reduce the penalty for having oral or anal sex in Virginia was defeated Wednesday by a committee in the State Senate, ending the most successful run to date for a pro-Gay bill in the Virginia Legislature.

By a vote of 9-6, the Senate Courts of Justice committee voted to "pass by indefinitely" House Bill 718, which would have reduced the penalty for violating Virginia’s "Crimes Against Nature" law, which prohibits any act of oral or anal sex, from a felony to a misdemeanor. The parliamentary motion means that the bill will not be considered again before the end of the session, essentially killing it.

But members of Virginians for Justice, a statewide group that lobbies for Gay civil rights, are trying to look on the bright side — after all, the bill went further in the legislature than any pro-Gay bill had ever gone before.

"On the upside, it was an incredible run," said David Scoven, a VJ lobbyist. "Previously, we’d never gotten a bill out of committee."

HB 718, proposed by Del. Karen Darner (D-Arlington), had passed the House Courts of Justice committee on Feb. 13, and barely cleared the House of Delegates last week with a vote of 50-49 before being defeated.

The fact that the senators voted to "pass by" the bill, rather than defeat it outright, may be a sign that the bill has a chance of passing in next year’s legislative session, said Scoven.

"They didn’t know what to do with it," said Scoven. If they had truly hated the bill, he said they would have simply killed it, but a vote to pass by indefinitely "is like saying ‘No for now, bring it back next year.’"

The experience with the penalty-reduction bill also allows VJ to anticipate what shape the bill should take next year. HB 718 began originally as two different bills, which were combined and amended into the form that passed the House. VJ will begin the process next year with a bill that matches the text of this year’s final version.

"We can get all our ducks in a row," Scoven said. "It shows the value of having a technically sound bill from the beginning."

VJ is also learning to work with a legislature dominated by Republicans in this session, Scoven said.

"You have to have their blessing over any piece of legislation that you want to get heard," he said. Any bill without bipartisan support has zero chance of success, he said.

Other bills that VJ supports were eliminated at the committee level again this year. An attempt to amend Virginia’s hate crimes law to include sexual orientation as a protected category was literally laughed out of the Senate committee, said Scoven. At least one member of the committee "just sat there and laughed the whole time that I was talking," Scoven recalled.

The House version of the hate crimes bill (HB 244) fared no better, said Shirley Lesser, VJ’s executive director.

"Last year they killed the [hate crimes] bill by equating Gays with pedophiles. This year they killed it by saying that it penalizes thought," said Lesser, noting the common argument that hate crimes legislation punishes the ideas of the attacker rather than their action.

Ironically, the same House committee also approved a bill (HB 1182) that enhances penalties against anyone who assaults a referee in a sporting event.

"Their argument wears kind of thin when they’re willing to enhance penalties for some people but not others," Lesser observed.

Efforts in the House and Senate to add "sexual orientation" to non-discrimination laws regarding housing and employment were also defeated in committee.

And one bill that VJ has been lobbying against for the past several years is moving along more swiftly than ever this year. An "infected sexual battery bill," (HB 141) which would make it a felony for an HIV-positive person to have sex without first disclosing their HIV status to their partner, passed the House easily and is now in a Senate committee. It is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Courts of Justice committee on Feb. 29.

"It’s going like gangbusters," said Lesser. "We need a lot of people to call in on this."

VJ opposes the bill because they say it would discourage people from receiving HIV tests, since someone could be prosecuted under the law only if they knew their HIV-status.

"It truly calls into question voluntary testing," said Lesser.

The proposed law also makes no distinction between protected and unprotected sex.

"The way it’s framed is as protecting innocent people from AIDS-infected people," Lesser said, "but it doesn’t talk about other methods of transmission, like needle exchange. … The intent is obvious — it’s intended to punish [HIV-positive] Gay men as people who are somehow less innocent."

One bright spot in the Legislature is a hospital visitation bill supported by VJ, which would allow individuals to specify who could grant visitation rights to them in the hospital if they should become incapacitated. Because Gay couples are not legally related, same-sex partners can be denied the right to visit their partners in the hospital, especially if the patient’s family opposes their presence.

That hospital visitation bill (SB 734) sailed through the Senate with no opposition and is expected to pass easily in the House. VJ is not actively lobbying on this bill, and does not want its members call the Legislature in support of the bill. Mainstream health organizations are more effective lobbyists for this bill than a Gay civil rights organization would be, Lesser told the Blade.

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