2020 Has Been a Revolutionary Year for LGBTQ Protections in Virginia. Here’s What Changed.

Image via The Gender Spectrum Collection

By Arianna Coghill

July 2, 2020

Laws that took effect in Virginia on Wednesday have made tremendous strides toward equality, including allowing a third gender marker on driver’s licenses, updating hate crime laws, and removing the state ban on same-sex marriages and unions.

On June 15, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) employees from discrimination based on sex. This landmark ruling is a victory for LGBTQ communities nationwide, one that they’ve been fighting to achieve for decades. 

“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of different sex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Many LGBTQ groups responded by pointing out that the ruling is even more important than the Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges’ decision on marriage quality because nearly every person needs a job. 

Equality Virginia is an advocacy group that has been fighting for equality for over 30 years. When its executive director, Vee Lamneck, first heard the news, they were speechless. 

“It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. A few days previous to the SCOTUS Title VII ruling, the Trump Administration had rolled back protections for transgender individuals accessing affirming care,” said Lamneck, who’s been with the group since 2013. “It was incredibly demoralizing. And to have this announcement just a few days later was so uplifting. It was a bit of emotional whiplash.” 

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Prior to this ruling, the Trump administration had sided with employers with three cases before the Supreme Court, arguing that Title VII does not protect lesbian, gay, and transgender people. 

On a state level, Virginia ran into similar issues with several anti-discrimination bills being consistently blocked by anti-equality lawmakers. But this year, the Commonwealth had its most progressive General Assembly session yet, with the governor signing into law 16 pro-equality bills that address issues pertaining to LGBTQ Virginians. 

In April, Gov. Ralph Northam passed the “Virginia Values Act,” a law that extends non-discrimination protections toward housing and public accomodations as well as employment.  

“This moment didn’t just happen,” said Lamneck, “It took courage, commitment, and resources from thousands of LGBTQ and allied people from every corner of our state for us to get here.”

Due to this law, Virginia is now the only southern state to have anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in place, according to Equality Virginia.

Other laws that took effect Wednesday, have also made tremendous strides toward equality, including allowing a third gender marker on driver’s licenses, updating hate crime laws, and removing the state ban on same-sex marriages and unions to reflect marriage equality. 

Virginia is also the first and only state in the South to ban conversion therapy, the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change someone’s sexual or gender identity that has been largely discredited by the medical field, for minors. 

Prior to these laws being passed, countless LGBTQ Virginians faced discrimination from their employers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Aurora Higgs, a Black queer activist, came face to face with this discrimination at her job in 2015. 

“The first year I transitioned, I worked at a nonprofit that claimed to promote equity. I was two weeks in when the CEO pulled me aside and asked me about my trans identity,” said Higgs.

Her boss asked her to not wear a dress around the board members. “He mentioned that they had certain religious affiliations,” Higgs said.

“I had worked this job because I wanted to pursue work in equity and to be dealt a blow like this within two weeks really shook me,” Higgs added. “At the time, there really wasn’t much that I could do about it. And while there’s not much I can do about it to this day, I know that my peers who are experiencing similar, unethical mistreatment in the workplace are now protected.” 

Upon first hearing about the court’s ruling, Higgs was relieved. While Virginia, at the time, already had legislation in place to protect LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination, it was a relief to know that people in other places would have this safeguard.

“It meant my peers, the other people in the trans community who are in more conservative localities, also got similar protections,” said Higgs. “So I was elated, because we now have double protection at a state and federal level.”   

However, with all the progress that has been made, advocates know there’s still more work to be done. Lamneck and Higgs strongly encourage both activists and legislators alike to continue pushing forward in their efforts to be inclusive in the fight for equal rights. 

“The current spotlight on racial justice has reinvigorated the LGBTQ equality movement here in Virginia and nationwide,” said Lamneck, referring to the mass protests that have swept the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Black LGBTQ people have always experienced higher rates of discrimination than white LGBTQ, but this is often not talked about.” 

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Marginalized communities, particularly Black people within the LGBTQ community, often face more discrimination than their white counterparts. A 2019 study by the National LGBTQ Taskforce revealed that Black transgender and gender-nonconforming people face some of the highest levels of discrimination of all transgender people. 

“This report is a critical call to action for our policymakers to confront these horrifying realities by enacting protections without hesitation,” said Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “The stark truth is that the multi-layered effects of poverty, race and class discrimination are devastating for Blacks.”

Higgs also stressed the importance of diversity in leadership when it comes to incorporating equity into both activism and legislation. 

“There needs to be a more equitable approach to legislation. And that starts with more representation in the legislature. Right now we have Danica Roem in the state House of Delegates, but she’s only one person,” Higgs explained. “She does great work, but I’d love to see more trans, genderqueer, and non-binary people in the legislature here in Virginia.”

“In order to experience full LGBTQ equality, we must address these disparities and center racial and gender equity in our work,” Lamneck added. 

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include comments from activist Aurora Higgs about the Supreme Court ruling and LGBTQ protections in Virginia.

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