The first month of 2019 delivered several key LGBT victories, like a transgender rights law in New York, and protective executive orders in several Midwestern states.
But at the tail end of January, LGBT advocates have suffered a major loss in Virginia, where two critical LGBT rights bills were just killed in the state’s House of Delegates.
The bills in question, HB 2677 and HB 2067, would have protected LGBT Virginians from discrimination in the areas of housing and public employment, respectively. They were both scheduled to be heard in the House General Laws Committee on Thursday, but the day before, LGBT advocates discovered they were no longer on the agenda.
“We’re really disappointed that at the eleventh hour, the bills were pulled out of committee and might not get the full and fair hearing they deserve,” Masen Davis, CEO of Freedom for All Americans, told The Daily Beast.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, LGBT advocates were gearing up for a major win in Virginia, where the House of Delegates has long stood in the way of these sought-after protections, despite receiving the approval of the Virginia Senate for four years running. Democrats have been narrowing the Republican lead in the House—and LGBT advocates were hopeful that they could find bipartisan support there this year.
In mid-January, the Senate once again approved housing and public employment protections in bipartisan votes of 33-7 and 28-12, respectively. The Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT rights groups celebrated the win, highlighting the fact that public opinion polls conducted by two different firms—Mason-Dixon and the Terrance Group—found a majority of Republican voters in the state were largely in favor of LGBT protections in these two areas.
But come Thursday, the twin bills were not listed on the House General Laws Committee’s docket, prompting LGBT groups to gather outside the state house for a rally. In a statement, HRC National Field Director Marty Rouse called the move “shameful.”
Now, LGBT advocates are calling on Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox to bring the bills to the floor for a vote before the legislative session ends on February 23.
“It’s a very short session in Virginia, so time is short, but there are still a few more days where the Speaker could realize that the majority of Virginians are for this bill,” Davis told The Daily Beast.
“It’s time for the House of Delegates to finally take up and pass these bills,” said James Parrish, executive director for Equality Virginia, in a statement. “It’s not controversial; it’s common sense.”
Speaker Cox did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Virginia is home to over 200,000 LGBT Americans. The Movement Advancement Project, which ranks LGBT equality in all 50 states on a scale from “negative” to “high,” currently ranks Virginia as “low,”based in large part on its lack of non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
Currently, no Eastern states below the Mason-Dixon Line have a ranking higher than “low” except for Maryland, Virginia’s neighbor to the north.
In January 2017, outgoing Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe did sign an executive order protecting LGBT state employees from discrimination—and in January 2018, incoming governor Ralph Northam, also a Democrat, signed a similar and slightly more expansive executive order.
But legislation protecting public employees would be more permanent because LGBT executive orders can be rolled back. (Kansas, for example, first had an executive order protecting LGBT state employees in 2007, but it was rescinded in 2015, only to be reinstated in 2018.)
Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, has pledged to “keep fighting for the community” in the wake of this week’s defeat. Davis, for one, is holding out hope that Speaker Cox could still “change his mind.”
At this point, however LGBT groups primarily seem to be looking ahead to November, when state elections could once again shake up the composition of the House of Delegates. If the 2019 election results in Virginia follow 2018’s voting patterns, as the Washington Post observed last November, Democrats could end up with a commanding 61-39 majority in the House of Delegates.
That would make the passage of both bills a shoo-in.
“If current leaders cowardly refuse to protect all Virginians, then voters will elect lawmakers who will,” said Rouse in a statement. “We will remember this in November.”
Davis is confident that, barring a sudden reversal this year from Speaker Cox, next year will be a different story. He sees Virginia as a case study in building bipartisan support for LGBT rights—the same support “that we’re starting to see across the country.”
“The truth is that even if we don’t win this year in Virginia, we are seeing the coalition working in that state, effectively changing hearts and minds, building support from incredibly diverse parts of the community across Virginia—and we know that that’s what’s needed to finally get us across the finish line in the state,” he told The Daily Beast.
LGBT advocates may have lost this year. But perhaps the fifth time’s a charm.