LGBTQ+ rights are at risk in the 2023 Virginia legislative elections
If Democrats win, they can restart the process of protecting same-sex marriage. If Republicans win, they will likely roll back equality for LGBTQ+ Virginians.
Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed 10 new laws to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens in 2020 and 2021, when Democrats had a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. Now, with anti-LGBTQ+ Republican Glenn Youngkin serving as governor, the 2023 Virginia elections will likely determine the future of those rights.
“Everything is on the line for LGBTQ+ Virginians this year,” Narissa Rahaman, executive director of the nonpartisan group Equality Virginia Advocates, said in an interview on Tuesday. “As we saw from the 2023 General Assembly session, anti-equality lawmakers are hell-bent on undermining our rights and our dignity and our fight for lived equality.”
Virginia is one of five states that hold their legislative elections in odd-numbered years. This November, voters will choose all 100 members of the House of Delegates and all 40 members of the Senate.
After decades of stalled attempts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to civil rights laws, in 2020 Virginia lawmakers passed the Virginia Values Act to ban discrimination in employment and public accommodations, along with laws prohibiting harmful so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ youth; protecting transgender and gender-nonconforming students; making it easier for transgender people to obtain amended birth certificates; expanding hate crimes protections; and allowing nonbinary people to use an X gender marker on their driver’s licenses.
A year later, they began the long process of repealing the 2006 amendment to the state’s Constitution that bans same-sex couples from marrying or receiving legal recognition of their relationships. Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision struck down all states’ same-sex marriage bans in 2015, the unconstitutional language remains on the books.
Changes to the Virginia Constitution require both the House and the Senate to approve the amendment twice each — once before and once after a legislative election — and then a majority of voters to approve it in a public referendum.
But after the Democratic-led House and Senate approved a proposed amendment in March 2021, Republicans won a majority in the House of Delegates that November. In 2022, the Democratic-led Senate again voted for repeal, but the GOP majority in the House blocked it, forcing the process to start from the beginning.
In 2022 and 2023, House Republicans pushed an array of bills to repeal legal protections for transgender kids and to weaken the 2020 Virginia Values Act by exempting public accommodations run by religious groups.
“In 2022, I think we had about two to three anti-trans bills introduced,” Breanna Diaz, policy and legislative counsel for the ACLU of Virginia, told the American Independent Foundation. “They were bad. But as you can imagine, they were defeated in the Senate, which is majority LGBTQ-rights-champion legislators. And in 2023 we saw an astonishing 12 anti-trans bills introduced.”
The bills introduced in 2023 would have barred transgender kids from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity; prohibited gender-affirming medical care for anyone under age 21; and required schools to out transgender and gender-nonconforming kids to their parents, but they were all either defeated in the Senate or left to die in a House committee.
Though Youngkin has framed himself as a defender of parental rights, he has opposed allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and participate in activities matching their gender identity even if their parents fully support them.
Rahaman said the bills are intended to rev up the GOP’s right-wing base for November: “I have no doubt … that these bills were introduced to whip up support ahead of this critical election and I have no doubt that it’s a priority for the governor and his party. And I think the fear is, if we lose these elections, we’ll see more of those bills come back.”
She noted that the anti-trans proposals are neither popular nor necessary. “These are not popular policy priorities. No constituent is actually asking for them, they are not solving any problem.”
A Washington Post-Schar School poll released April 6 found that only 30% of Virginia voters approve of Youngkin’s handling of transgender rights. The same survey found that 52% are against transgender sports bans and 55% oppose bans on transgender kids using the bathrooms that match their gender identity.
Diaz predicted that victories for Youngkin’s allies in November would mean a huge step back for equality: “I believe that we will see efforts to roll back protections in the Virginia Values Act and I still think we will see bills targeting gender-affirming care for minors and even young adults. … We are fully aware that if LGBTQ rights champions aren’t elected in the 2023 election, we should be ready for possibly the worst.”
Liam Watson, the press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, noted the stark difference between Virginia Democrats and Virginia Republicans on issues of LGBTQ+ rights: “We see Democrats in the House and Senate here in Virginia championing, every single session, the rights of all Virginians. And every single session, we see Republicans propose policies that would drag Virginia backwards, that would infringe on the civil rights of LGBTQ Virginians.”
On its most recent legislative scorecard, Equality Virginia found that every single Democratic legislator voted in 2021 for LGBTQ+ equality more than 70% of the time. Just six Republicans voted for equality more than 35% of the time.
Watson predicted that, should Democrats win majorities in the Legislature, they would restart the effort to repeal the state Constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions.
“Democrats have been working to get this referendum before the Virginia people, before Virginia voters, and Republicans have restricted Virginians’ right to self determination,” he said.”It’s the distinction that we see at the national level, it’s here in Virginia too, that Democrats are working to protect every single Virginian, while Republicans are working to reinstate draconian bans on same sex-marriage.”
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
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