We Have Very Little to Lose by Trying
Virginians for Justice Changes Strategies for New Session
February 4, 2000
By Bill Roundy
Virginians for Justices Shirley Lesser said, "This is a year of
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 laws 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
"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
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, itll 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,"
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 dont 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
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