VIRGINIA BEACH — After a series of anti-discrimination bills failed to leave committee in the Virginia House of Delegates in February, a Richmond-based nonprofit has decided to mount an advocacy campaign — not in Richmond, but in Virginia Beach.
In late May, the leadership of Equality Virginia, a statewide education and advocacy group seeking equality for LGBT Virginians, will pour money and resources into reaching out to Virginia Beach businesses and residents to discuss anti-discrimination bills to protect LGBT people.
Equality Virginia is setting up shop in Virginia Beach mainly because of certain state delegates representing parts of the city.
Three of the 12 state delegates who sit on a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee — Dels. Glenn Davis, Jason Miyares and Barry Knight — are all Republicans, represent Virginia Beach, and voted in February to kill two bills that would have made it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people for housing or public employment.
Neither Davis, Miyares nor Knight were immediately available for comment.
The two bills that died in a house subcommittee had already passed the state senate with bipartisan support, including “yes” votes from all Republican and Democratic state senators representing Hampton Roads.
SB 423 would have revised Virginia’s Fair Housing Law to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. SB 202 would have codified a prohibition against discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in public employment — something that protects state employees now only through an executive order.
“The Hampton roads area is going to be a political epicenter for LGBT Virginians next year,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia.
After raising money for the campaign in recent months, Parrish and Equality Virginia will launch their anti-discrimination advocacy campaign at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront on May 22.
The intent of the campaign is to “bring new people into the fold” in Virginia Beach and to built support for the passage of LGBT non-discrimination protections in the state, particularly in regards to housing and public employment. There is no state law barring anyone from denying people housing or public employment based on gender identity, Parrish said.
The Equality Virginia campaign will run from May until the general election on Nov. 6.
None of the three Virginia Beach delegates are up for reelection.
Parrish said the campaign “will be grassroots and grass tops initiatives.” It will include conversations with elected officials, the business community, faith leaders, and the public.
“We will be walking the neighborhoods, working the phones, and engaging various faith leaders. We’ll have teams particularly focused on businesses.” Parrish said.
As part of the Virginia Beach campaign, Equality Virginia will utilize their “Equality Means Business” program, which engages small businesses throughout Virginia to pledge non-discrimination in their hiring practices.
“Businesses don’t want politicians scaring people away because of their policies or lack thereof,” which is why engaging the business community on this issue is so crucial, Parrish said.
Parrish said it’s not that far-fetched to convince state delegates to vote for LGBT protections because “Virginia Beach politicians in particular have a history of supporting non-discrimination laws.”
Ron Villanueva, a former state delegate, introduced legislation in January 2015 that would have prohibited public employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill never made it out of committee.
Former Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms was part of a coalition of mayors throughout the country that fights against LGBT discrimination, and Sessoms also oversaw the city’s passage of gender identity protections for LGBT employees in 2015. The city’s police department was also the first in Hampton Roads to appoint an LGBT liaison officer in May 2016.
“Virginia Beach is a very republican city; however, they still strongly support non-discrimination against the LGBT community,” Parrish said, “which shows that supporting non-discrimination is not a partisan issue, nor is it urban versus rural or red versus blue. It’s an issue of basic fairness, and I think that Virginia Beach is a good example of that.”
Michael Berlucchi, the former president of Hampton Roads Pride and a member of Virginia Beach’s Human Rights Commission, also views these housing and employment bills as issues of basic decency.
Berlucchi was instrumental in creating the LGBT liaison officer program and has been heavily involved in LGBT advocacy over the last five years.
“I was born in Virginia Beach and have spent most of my life here — Virginia Beach is an amazing place to live and work,” Berlucchi said. “But the fact remains that any Virginian can legally be denied public employment or housing on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Most people don’t believe that is right or fair.”
Berlucchi said he was disappointed the anti-discrimination legislation failed this year “despite the public’s support for these common sense, fair bills.”
It is hard to say how many LGBT people are discriminated against for public employment or housing in Virginia, Parrish said, since there’s no system in place to gather that information.
“Because it is legal in Virginia to fire someone or deny them housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, there’s no place to report it,” Parrish said. However, “if someone has been fired because of race, for example, there are avenues to report that, ways to document the incident and processes for litigation.”
For information about Equality Virginia’s advocacy campaign in Virginia Beach, call 804-643-4816 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.