Virginia Sodomy Bill Defeated
Hate Crimes, Employment Legislation Also Dies
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
Virginias "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, wed 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 years
legislative session, said Scoven.
"They didnt 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 years 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,
Other bills that VJ supports were eliminated at the committee level again this year. An
attempt to amend Virginias 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, VJs 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 theyre 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
"Its 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 its framed is as protecting innocent people from AIDS-infected
people," Lesser said, "but it doesnt talk about other methods of
transmission, like needle exchange.
The intent is obvious its 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 patients 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.
[Home] [News] [Virginia]