Last edited: February 14, 2005

Virginia Activists Try a New Approach

Gay-Related Bills are Narrowly Focused for 2001 Legislative Session

The Washington Blade, January 26, 2001

Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington) introduced legislation to help Arlington County employees gain insurance benefits for their domestic partners. By Bill Roundy

Each year, it seems, a flock of Gay-friendly bills wanders out onto the tundra of the Virginia legislature only to be torn apart by conservative wolves or lost in bureaucratic thickets. But facing a 2001 session that lasts only 30 days, the Gay civil rights group Virginians for Justice hopes that an array of slimmer, more narrowly targeted bills can slip past the obstacles of the General Assembly.

"All the bills are streamlined this year," says Virginians for Justice lobbyist David Scoven. "We went for minimal change."

Two of the bills are so narrowly crafted that they will apply to only one county each. Senate Bill 1147 would have allowed Fairfax county to amend its human rights code to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Unfortunately for VJ, the Senate Committee on Local Government defeated the bill on Jan. 23, when it was "passed by indefinitely" a parliamentary move to postpone discussion on a bill, almost always until the session is over. Another bill currently before that same committee, SB 1226, introduced by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), would allow Arlington county to offer insurance benefits to "one adult dependent" of county employees, as a method of allowing domestic partners to gain insurance benefits.

The wolves of the Virginia legislature have made a perennial target of attempts to repeal the states Crimes Against Nature law, which makes a felony out of any act of oral or anal sex between any two people, male or female, public or private. In practice, however, the law is used only against Gay people, and legislators stated explicitly this year that the laws true purpose is to discourage homosexuality.

Virginians for Justice had attempted to circumvent arguments from previous years that the law was necessary to curb public sex and to protect children by introducing a bill (HB 2632) that would have removed all penalties for oral or anal sex between consenting adults, while retaining penalties for that activity with those under age 18, and also making the penalty for public sex a misdemeanor on the first offense and a felony on the second.

Del. Dick Black (R-Loudoun) argued in a Jan. 19 committee hearing that repealing the CAN statute would encourage homosexuality and "unravel the moral fabric of the Commonwealth of Virginia," the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reported.

"Black said that if this passes, were going to have half-naked men in dresses marching in parades like theyve got in San Francisco," said Scoven, exasperated.

One controversy arose among Gay activists during an early strategy session regarding this bill, because of its provision keeping the penalty for sex with or among those under the age of 18. Washington, D.C., Gay activist Frank Kameny had argued that because Virginias age of consent is 16, the bill should also set the age at 16.

"Youve got a situation where two 17-year-olds could be considered culpable," Scoven admitted, "but thats never going to come up. You have to trust that the commonwealths attorney isnt going to prosecute two 17-year-olds."

Another sodomy-related bill is still alive, in the House Committee on Military and Police, but it is not expected to pass. HB 2309 would reduce the penalty for oral or anal sex between consenting adults from a felony to a misdemeanor, but Virginians for Justice is no longer actively supporting this bill, preferring to concentrate efforts on a full repeal of the law.

The House Courts of Justice Committee voted 13-9 to "pass by indefinitely" the sodomy repeal bill, which would normally be the end of the bill, but Virginians for Justice hopes that new information can revive it before the end of the session. A recent poll commissioned by Virginians for Justice may help persuade legislators that restoring the bill is a politically safe move, says Scoven, and parliamentary rules allow a bill to be returned to consideration if any one member who voted to pass it by asks for it to be returned.

Final results from the poll were not yet available, Scoven said, but early returns indicate that statewide support for repealing the states Crimes Against Nature law is "overwhelming."

Some of the legislators have indicated privately that they would like to vote in favor of the bill, but they fear a political backlash from conservative constituents.

Another bill, introduced by Arlington's Sen. Whipple, which has surprisingly good prospects this year, is a bill to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation (SB 815). Virginians for Justice decided not to expend resources pursuing housing and public accommodation discrimination this year.

In private discussion, some conservative members of the Senate Courts of Justice committee have said that they will support the employment bill if it is amended to specify that it would not apply to religious institutions or businesses that employ less than 15 people, and if a definition of "sexual orientation" is included.

"Its insulting to have to say [in the definition] that sexual orientation doesnt include pedophiles but its what they wanted, so its what we did," said Scoven. "Were giving them everything they asked for, to the letter, and well see if they keep their promise."

Two bills attempting to add "sexual orientation" to Virginias hate crimes law have already been defeated, one in the House and one in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

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