Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, came to Richmond for the first time 30 years ago for a gay rights lobby day. Only a handful of legislators talked to him.
“I don’t think it made a difference - at least not at that time,” said Ebbin, who became Virginia's first openly gay legislator after he was elected in 2003. “Things have changed.”
The state Senate on Thursday passed an Ebbin-sponsored bill, dubbed the Virginia Values Act, that would prohibit discrimination in public and private employment, and housing, based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The House of Delegates passed a similar bill Thursday.
The act also would create new nondiscrimination protections for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community in housing and public accommodations.
“This legislation is needed. It is urgent. It is important to know that discrimination is still happening in Virginia,” Ebbin said. “It is time to drive it out and until we do, our commonwealth will continue to suffer the psychological, physical and economic vandalism simply because of who people are or who they love.”
The bill, Senate Bill 868, passed the Senate in a bipartisan, 30-9 vote.
“It’s certainly time that we embrace equality for everybody in the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, one of nine Republicans to join the 21 Senate Democrats in voting for the bill.
LGBTQ people are not explicitly protected from discrimination under state law, meaning they could be fired, evicted or denied service in restaurants because of their sexuality or gender identity.
James Parrish, the director of the Virginia Values Coalition, called Thursday a “historic day in Virginia.”
Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Virginia would be the first state in the South to have non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people if the bill is signed into law.
Virginia is home to roughly 250,000 LGBTQ adults, according to Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia, the state’s main LGBTQ advocacy organization.
“Virginia has often been a leader, so passing this legislation really helps to affirm Virginia’s place in history as a leader around fairness and around equity,” Lamneck said.
The House of Delegates backed the companion bill, House Bill 1663 from Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, in a 59-35 vote while supporters wore rainbow-colored, heart-shaped stickers. In 2014, Sickles announced that he is gay, became the second openly gay member of the General Assembly.
“What we are now seeing here is a statement of affirmation in which we welcome Virginians and we welcome you because of who you are, not despite it, and not for what discriminatory politicians tell you you’re supposed to be,” said Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the first openly transgender lawmaker in a U.S. legislature.
“We are here to tell you that you are welcomed, celebrated, respected and protected in Virginia - no matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship if you do, who you love, or as [Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas] likes to say, who you’re born to be.”
Roem added: “Virginia is for everyone. Virginia is for lovers. Virginia is for all lovers.”
Before the vote, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, expressed concern that the bill could violate people’s religious freedom. He specifically cited the case of Peter Vlaming, a teacher at West Point High School in King William County who was fired in 2018 after resisting administrators’ orders to use male pronouns when referring to a freshman student who had undergone a gender transition, citing his religious beliefs.
“Peter Vlaming wants to be who he is,” LaRock said.
Vlaming sued the West Point School Board in October, accusing the board of breach of contract and of violating his rights.
Gov. Ralph Northam Tuesday at an Equality Virginia reception that he supports the bills.
“We can take action this year and we are going to officially end discrimination in the commonwealth of Virginia,” he said. “We are on the cusp of doing historic things.”
He added: “We want to welcome people to the commonwealth of Virginia. That’s who we are. It shouldn’t matter the country that you come from. It shouldn’t matter the color of your skin. It shouldn’t matter what religion you practice, and it shouldn’t matter who you choose to love.”
The passage of the Virginia Values Act comes as Democrats, holding House and Senate majorities and the governorship for the first time in 26 years, pass legislation that advocates say is long overdue.
Bills to ban conversion therapy - a discredited method of attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of a person - and require the Board of Education to craft model policies related to transgender students have passed both chambers, for example. Those bills, and others, would go into effect July 1 if Northam signs them.