Virginia becomes first southern state to pass sweeping LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill

Virginia becomes first southern state to pass sweeping LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, the first openly gay person elected to the General Assembly, spoke in favor of the Virginia Values Act on Thursday. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, recalled his first visit to the General Assembly about 30 years ago to lobby for gay rights.

“Very few lawmakers came out of their offices to meet with us, and I don’t think it made a difference — at least at that time,” he said. “Now we have five members of the LGBT caucus, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.”

Ebbin, the first openly gay person elected to state office in Virginia, relayed the story Thursday as a marker of just how much the state has changed as the legislature passed the Virginia Values Act, which extends sweeping anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ people.

The legislation not only adds sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in housing, employment and public accommodations, it establishes a new framework for people who feel they’ve been discriminated against to take legal action against the offending party. Those causes of action would also apply to discrimination based on race, age, sex, religion, pregnancy, veteran status and other categories.

The bill also enables the attorney general’s office to pursue civil action against anyone “engaged in a pattern or practice of resistance ” to the civil rights spelled out in the proposed law.

National human rights groups heralded Thursday’s vote as a historic breakthrough that makes Virginia the first state in the South to enact such protections.

“You’re not free if you’re discriminated against in housing and employment, and this legislation is going to change that so LGBT people can be free like everyone else,” said Human Rights Campaign Alphonso David.

The legislation passed the state Senate on a bipartisan, 30-9 vote. The House of Delegates approved the bill by a vote of 59-35, with three Republicans joining with the chamber’s 56 Democrats.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.