Ashley Broadway-Mack is a landlord’s dream tenant. She’s a mom, the wife of a soldier, an active participant in her community and she always pays the rent on time. She’s just trying to live her best life — something like the American dream — she said in an interview.
When she fills out a housing application, she meets all the marks. Except for one entry: the field that asks, “name of spouse.”
Broadway-Mack is a lesbian. And in her home state of Virginia, there are no laws protecting LGBTQ residents like her from certain types of discrimination.
Under Virginia law, it is illegal for residential housing agents and public employers to discriminate against applicants, tenants and employees based on race, sex, national origin, familial status, disability or age. However, these protections do not extend to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people and their families. A college professor can be fired because he is gay, a lesbian couple’s home application can be denied because they love each other.
“It’s very demeaning as a human being,” Broadway-Mack, a resident of Alexandria, said. “It’s deeply troubling … knowing that is even a possibility, that’s legal, and that there’s really not much we could do about it if that were to happen.”
And it does happen — more than you might think.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted the first-ever national study of housing discrimination. Researchers used a technique called matched-pair testing, where individuals trained to pose as housing consumers submit rental applications to a housing provider. Each provider gets two applications that are equal in every way except for the characteristic that is to be tested — sexual orientation, in this case. The study found that heterosexual couples were favored over gay male couples 15.9 percent of the time and over lesbian couples 15.6 percent of the time.
From 2014 – 2015, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, an advocacy group, conducted a similar study in Virginia, which is home to 185,000 LGBT adults and 14,200 same-sex couples.
Mimicking the methodology of the HUD study, HOME’s report found that 44 percent of housing agents offered more favorable treatment to different-sex-couples than same-sex couples.
“When we deny housing opportunities based on an individual’s characteristics … we’re violating the human contract,” said HOME Director Brian Koziol in an interview.
Virginia Democrats have championed bills to extend discrimination protections to LGBTQ residents since at least 1999, including almost a dozen bills in the 2019 General Assembly session. This year, as with every year over the past two decades, Democrats’ anti-discrimination efforts met a familiar fate — death by Republicans.
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) blocked a full committee hearing on two key anti-discrimination housing and jobs bills in 2019. And while seven Republicans joined all 19 Senate Democrats in voting to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the bill failed on the House floor thanks to near-unanimous GOP opposition.
Koziol said the tactics Republicans have used to thwart these bills — like not allowing them to get a full floor vote — are “undemocratic.”
“Everybody has a gay friend or neighbor or family member,” Koziol said, “the public’s ready for this but there’s a disconnect” between them and Republicans in office.
Conservative religious groups like the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Family Foundation, which oppose gay marriage, have lobbied heavily against extending discrimination protections to LGBTQ people. Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb wrote in a March blog post that these initiatives not only have “a corrosive effect on the family and society but always inevitably lead to conflicts with religious liberty and conscience rights.”
Advocates like Koziol counter that they’re in the fight to end discrimination so that all people are equal under the law. Cobb argues this debate isn’t about equal rights, it’s about “special rights.”
That’s “extra insulting” to Virginians like Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack, Broadway-Mack’s wife, who has served her country abroad in places like Afghanistan and Egypt. “It’s a slap-in-the-face that here she is serving her country, ready to put her life on the line, yet there are states in this country like Virginia that don’t allow her to have the safety net of being treated equally just because she is a lesbian in a same-sex marriage,” Broadway-Mack said.
The couple didn’t necessarily need to move to Virginia — they could have gone to neighboring Maryland or Washington, D.C., both of which ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But they liked Alexandria, so it was frustrating — most Americans don’t need to consider whether or not they have equal protection under the law when moving across state lines.
“The average person doesn’t totally understand how who’s in power affects, you know, their day-to-day life,” Broadway-Mack said. She cited two prior experiences with discrimination in other states — not being recognized as a family and missing out on the first home she wanted to rent — as examples.
The couple was initially skeptical of Virginia. But when former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, was elected in 2013, it gave them confidence that the Commonwealth was headed in the right direction — becoming more blue than red.
Broadway-Mack said they made the move in the hopes that “very soon, one day we will have those protections just like our neighbors who just happened to be a heterosexual family.”
Statewide, Virginia is still blue. But the power to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and to codify anti-discrimination measures in employment and housing rests with the General Assembly. While the House and Senate were controlled by GOP lawmakers in the last session, that all could change as every seat is up for election this November.