News Virginian, April 25, 2021

Something important is underway in Washington, D.C. Having passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 25, the “Equality Act” is under consideration in the Senate.

Back in 1986, I met my partner at an ACLU meeting in the Illinois town where we both were living. The topic of the meeting that night was a proposed bill that would extend all the protection of the law to people who were not straight. And yes, back in the 1980s it was a much smaller portion of people who were paying attention to the legal needs of transgender people.

The bill under discussion that night did not make it through the Illinois legislature that year. In fact, it took a full 20 years of additional activism for Illinois to pass its 2006 anti-discrimination law for sexual orientation and gender identity. The only saving grace of the long wait was the law became more inclusive.

In the 20 years of activism and waiting, many had to stay in the closet at work because employers could legally fire people whom they even suspected of being other than straight or other than cisgender. Landlords could similarly discriminate if they suspected you of being on the LGBTQIA spectrum. Restaurants could refuse to serve you. Hotels could refuse you a room based on a desk clerk’s prejudice or company policy.

It took the first 55 years of my life for equal marriage to arrive nationwide — only through the action of the Supreme Court. My home state did not rescind the so-called gay-panic defense until 2017, two years after I moved away. The gay or trans-panic defense allowed people who perpetrated violent hate crimes on LGBTQ people to avoid proper penalties if they claimed they felt threatened by the sexual orientation or gender of the person they violently attacked.

And when I moved to the Commonwealth in 2015, some of the equal protections that had only just been achieved in Illinois were not yet available here. But Virginia moved forward with equal protection. In 2020 the “Virginia Values Act” became law, providing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. It was the first law of its kind in the South. Also last year, new legislation added LGBTQ people to those with legal protections against hate crimes. Currently under consideration by the Virginia Senate, HB1948 will abolish law-enforcement profiling of LGBTQ people. Virginia has taken great strides. And there remain areas to work on.

The still recent arrival on the scene of the Impulse Gay Social Club in Waynesboro and the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center in Staunton are evidence of a new openness in the Valley.

State-to-state discrepancy in rights is why the Equality Act is so important. Equal rights should never depend on what state you live in. Accepting a job in a new state should never mean you are less safe than you were before the move.

The filibuster in the Senate might mean this isn’t going to reach any president’s desk until the political balance shifts. All 224 co-sponsors of the bill in the House of Representatives were Democrats. In the Senate, 46 Democrats and two independents have co-sponsored. Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Mark R. Warner, D-Va., are both co-sponsors. Please write them to thank them.

If you haven’t done so yet, please read the text of the “Equality Act,” determine for yourself it is only doing for the nation what Virginia and Illinois have been learning to do for all their residents.

America can change for the better if we keep nudging it toward greater equality and equity. Let’s not get discouraged if this takes a while.

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Column by Rev. Paul Oakley