Last edited: December 05, 2004

Gay Virginians Meet with Mark Warner

The Washington Blade, January 11, 2002

By Rhonda Smith

RICHMOND, Va.óGov.-elect Mark Warner and a few senior staff members met in Richmond Wednesday, Jan. 9, with 10 gay civil rights and AIDS advocates in Virginia to begin discussions with a constituency largely ignored by the states last two Republican governors.

Grant Neely, who attended the gathering and works in the incoming governors policy office, described it as "a very informal meeting" with a group of friends who supported Warnerís campaign.

"The governor-elect has said for months and months that heís committed to reaching out to all Virginians, and this was a continuation of that," Neely said.

"The main goal was to open up lines of communication and begin an ongoing dialogue, and we will meet again," he added. "But this wasnít a commitment-making meeting."

The General Assembly convened its 60-day session Wednesday. Warner is to be sworn in as Virginias 69th governor Saturday, Jan. 12.

Adam Ebbin, an openly gay member of the Virginia State Central Democratic Committee, helped organize the meeting with the Virginia Partisans Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club.

"[Warner] said he wanted to leave no Virginian behind," Ebbin said, "and the meeting was a step toward ensuring he will leave no gays and lesbians behind."

Neither Ebbin nor Neely would disclose which gay Virginians attended the meeting. Warner attended part of the meeting, along with his chief of staff, director of policy, and assistant director of policy.

Ebbin said participants thanked Warner for his support of a proposal by the Virginia Housing Development Authority to make unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, eligible for low-interest home financing loans. The VHDAís board is scheduled Jan. 23 to vote on this matter.

Ebbin also said the gay civil rights leaders suggested actions Warner and his staff could take to ensure that gay men and lesbians are hired or appointed to various positions in his administration during his four-year term.

ĎSmall advancesí

David Scoven, executive director of Virginians for Justice, a statewide gay group based in Richmond, attended the meeting. He said the gay civil rights and AIDS advocates outlined legislative priorities, among other issues, including whether Warner plans to sign an executive order to protect state employees against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

During Warnerís campaign for governor last year, he said he supports protection against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation because it makes good business sense.

Gay civil rights advocates want Warner to sign an executive order because they are less sure that identical legislation would be approved by Virginias General Assembly, where Republicans now occupy a large majority of House and, to a lesser extent, Senate seats. There are 64 Republicans in the 100-seat House chamber.

The Log Cabin Republican Club of Northern Virginia recently approved a resolution that supports passage of a measure to protect employees at state or local government agencies against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Log Cabin members said they do not support approval of an employment non-discrimination act that would apply to private employers, however.

"This resolution exempted the private sector because many members do not believe that private sector employers should be subject to such government mandates," Log Cabin officers recently said in the gay groups newsletter.

Democrat Jay Fisette, an openly gay member of the Arlington County Board, was unable to attend the meeting. He said this week, however, that he supports a broad employment non-discrimination measure that would protect workers in Virginias public and private industries from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"That would be something Id like to see," he said. "The challenge here is the fact that you have a very heavily out of balance Republican General Assembly. So its going to be very difficult."

The most that gay civil rights advocates should expect during the current legislative session is "small advances," Fisette said.

"But we want to stem the tide of setbacks, and I think thatís one of the things this governor will do, at least in the beginning," he added.

Fisette also said the likelihood "will not be high" that gay civil rights advocates can gain approval of legislation to amend the Virginias hate crime statute to include protection based on sexual orientation. Warner has said he supports expanding the hate crime law to include protection for people based on sexual orientation or disability.

"A lot of these things are not going to go far within the General Assembly," Fisette said.

Possible appointments

Like Ebbin, Fisette said one question that could be asked of Warner is that his administration appoint gay people to various committees and boards throughout Virginia.

"Iím not aware of anyone openly gay who has been appointed," he said. "If anything, Iím hopeful that we can rely on this governor to appoint some openly gay people to protect us from negative measures that might come up. We would also look to this governor to veto such things."

Virginians for Justice and the Log Cabin Republican Club of Northern Virginia are working together to have the states sodomy, or Crimes Against Nature, law "reformed."

This law prohibits oral and anal sex in public or private between all Virginia residents, regardless of sexual orientation.

The two gay groups support a legislative proposal to repeal provisions of the law that pertain to private behavior between consenting adults. The proposed measure would increase penalties for public sexual acts that involve sodomy.

"We addressed what we felt were legitimate concerns by law enforcement officers," said Log Cabin member Bill Kocol, who has been working on this issue for the Republican gay group. "We want to be careful not to undermine the law, as far as it prohibits public sexual conduct."

Log Cabin officers said getting the sodomy law reformed would again be the groupís top legislative priority. During the most recent legislative session, a House committee defeated the measure and the full chamber never voted on it.

For the first time, a Republican lawmaker has agreed to sponsor a sodomy reform measure. Gay civil rights advocates said this, along with support from Libertarian lawmakers and moderate Republicans in the General Assembly, might help its chances of getting approved.

Republican James Dilliard II of Fairfax, who has been a member of the General Assembly for 28 years, said he agreed to co-sponsor sodomy reform legislation because "itís the right thing to do."

"It may apply more to homosexual relationships but what it basically says is that everybody who serves in the Assembly is a violator of the law," he told the Blade. "Were talking about sexual activity that everybody I know participates in and, technically, itís a criminal offense."

Budget concerns

Scoven of Virginians for Justice said that during the gay leaders meeting with Warner and his staff members, he and others said the sodomy law has more of an impact on custody and adoption cases involving gay Virginians than it has on prosecuting people for taking part in public sex acts. Judges, among others, have said that gay people are unfit parents if they engage in sexual acts defined as sodomy because they are committing a felony.

"We need to repeal that law or pass the bill Virginians for Justice supports that would reform the statute by decriminalizing private consensual sexual acts between adults in the privacy of their own homes," Scoven said.

Warner has refused to say whether he would support repealing or reforming the stateís sodomy law. He also has said he would not support legislation to repeal Virginiaís four-year-old ban on same-sex marriage.

One issue on which gay civil rights advocates seem to agree is that Warners attention will be focused, primarily, on developing a strategy to address the states $1.3 billion budget shortfall in the current fiscal year and an expected shortage of at least $2 billion in the two-year budget cycle that begins July 1.

Neely, in Warnerís policy office, said the incoming governor has spent probably 90 percent of his time trying to get a handle on whatís going on with the state budget.

"Its worse than he ever expected," he said. "But that doesnít mean everything else gets pushed to the side."

Jim Ball, another gay civil rights and AIDS advocate who attended the meeting with Warner Wednesday, said gay Virginians still have a reason to be optimistic.

"We have just emerged from eight years of darkness, bigotry and prejudice," he said, alluding to the administrations of former Republican governors James Gilmore III and George Allen. "To even have a meeting with them was unthinkable."


Virginians for Justice 6 N. Sixth St. Suite LL3 Richmond, VA 23219

Log Cabin Republican Club of Northern Virginia P.O. Box 16611 Alexandria, VA 22302 703-972-3838

Virginia Partisans Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club P.O. Box 6243 Arlington, VA 22206 703-658-5331

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