Last edited: February 14, 2005

We Have Very Little to Lose by Trying

Virginians for Justice Changes Strategies for New Session

Washington Blade, February 4, 2000

By Bill Roundy

Virginians for Justice’s Shirley Lesser said, "This is a year of different strategies."

With Republicans now a majority in the Virginia House and Senate and new legislators in charge of many committees, the states Gay civil rights organization has decided to try out some new tactics in attempting to get pro-Gay legislation passed.

"This is a year of different strategies," said Shirley Lesser, executive director of Virginians for Justice. "Were going to see what happens when we have different bills going to different committees with different patrons."

Some new tactics include more narrowly focused bills, new patrons on some bills that have been proposed before, and working behind the scenes.

For instance, a bill proposed last year by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington) to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment and housing has been split into two separate bills.

"[Whipple] feels that it may be easier to pass if the bills are split up. Were not entirely convinced, but were willing to try it," said Lesser.

Whipple is proposing the employment non-discrimination bill (SB 716), while Sen. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond), who has never sponsored Gay-supportive legislation before, has proposed a ban on discrimination in housing (SB 716). Because of their subject matter, the bills will be heard in different committees, allowing Virginians for Justice to determine the climate toward Gay-related legislation in each.

The Virginia Crimes Against Nature law, which makes any act of oral or anal sex (sodomy) a felony, is under renewed scrutiny this year because of a case pending before the Virginia Court of Appeals challenging the laws constitutionality. Efforts to reform or repeal the law in previous years have repeatedly failed to get out of committee.

Asked about prospects for the law’s repeal this year, Del. Brian Moran (D-Alexandria) said, "Its bleak. But we have to continue to work on those issues. Well keep bringing them up."

Virginians for Justice also has a new strategy to tackle the Crimes Against Nature law. In addition to sodomy law reform bills in the House and Senate, proposed respectively by Moran and Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-Alexandria), Arlington Del. Karen Darner (D) has filed a bill to reduce the penalty for sodomy to a misdemeanor.

Darner said she believes that her proposal (HB 718) will be easier to pass than the sodomy reform bill that she sponsored last year. If approved, her bill would reduce the potential penalty for violation of the law from five years in prison to a maximum $250 fine.

"We have very little to lose by trying," said Lesser. "Wed rather get rid of [the law], but this way we can see if we can improve it until we get what we really want."

Some of the changes this year were unintentional for instance, replacing the annual Virginians for Justice Lobby Day with "GLBT Virtual Lobby Day."

The lobby day, scheduled for Jan. 28, was canceled to due to a snowstorm that downed power lines in Richmond and made streets almost impassable.

"If I never see snow again, it’ll be too soon," Lesser groused.

Because of the difficulties in organizing citizen lobbyists, Virginians for Justice decided not to reschedule the lobby day. Instead, the group sponsored a "virtual lobby day" on Feb. 3, encouraging supporters to e-mail their legislators and providing samples letters for lobbyists to use as guides.

While e-mail is never as effective as in-person visits with a legislator, the idea of a virtual lobby day is a way to get the community involved, said Lesser.

"I think people respond more if they know that everyone else is doing it," she observed.

Va. Del. Brian Moran says that he is committed to working on Gay civil rights issues.

In addition to direct lobbying on issues of Gay civil rights and AIDS issues, Virginians for Justice is also working behind the scenes. For instance, the organization is attempting to line up support for hospital visitation bills (HB 1478 and SB 734), that would allow people to designate who would be allowed to visit them in the event of hospitalization. Because Gay couples in committed relationships are not legally related, they are routinely denied visitation rights.

However, Virginians for Justice has asked that its members not lobby their legislators directly on this bill. A Gay civil rights organization is not necessarily the most effective group to lobby on this issue, explained Lesser.

"This bill can help a lot of people," Lesser said. "I don’t think that [legislators] are not going to realize that this will include Gay and Lesbian people. But if we can get nursing associations and doctors associations behind this bill, they are a more powerful lobbying force than we are."

Virginians for Justice has also taken an unusual stand in opposing a bill that would expand crimes which are eligible for the death penalty in Virginia to include murders committed because of bias against the victims "race, color, gender, sexual orientation, religious conviction, or national origin."

Virginias hate crimes law, which does not include sexual orientation as a protected category, enhances penalties for bias-motivated vandalism and assault charges, but not murder. And while Virginians for Justice supports efforts to expand the hate crimes law to include sexual orientation, it believes that the death penalty is applied unfairly against minorities and the poor.

"While VJ supports the bills inclusivity, we are opposed to expanding the list of crimes for which the death penalty applies," reads an Action Alert. "VJ takes no stance on the death penalty itself, but we do believe that as currently applied, it is a tool of oppression."

"If we lived in a society in which the death penalty was evenly applied, we might take a different stand," said Lesser.

Another new project for Virginians for Justice is countering a bill to increase penalties for those convicted of soliciting others to commit a felony. Solicitation to commit sodomy is a charge commonly brought by police against men cruising other men for sex in public places, and because the law is used unfairly to target men that police believe are Gay, Virginians for Justice opposes any attempt to increase its penalties.

Other projects the organization is tackling include hate crime legislation, modifying a teen suicide prevention study to include problems faced by Gay youth, and budget issues related to AIDS funding.

"We have a lot of bills," noted Lesser. "Were not just a one-issue group."

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