Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Richmond inches forward on LGBT protection — with a push from Virginia Beach

Michael Berlucchi, co-chair of Virginia Beach Fairness, during the group's launch at the Oceanfront. Backed by Equality Virginia, Fairness has lobbied business leader in support of statewide LGBT protections (Joshua Weinstein/Southside Daily)
Michael Berlucchi, co-chairman of Virginia Beach Fairness, during the group’s launch at the Oceanfront. Backed by Equality Virginia, Fairness has lobbied Virginia Beach business leaders and delegates in support of statewide LGBT protections (Southside Daily)

Two anti-discrimination bills in the Virginia House of Delegates took an important step toward passage Tuesday, after years of being stuck in legislative limbo.

The two House versions of state Senate Bills 998 and 1109, which would provide nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in housing and public employment, respectively, were referred out of the House Rules Committee to the House General Laws Committee for a vote before Feb. 19.

Movement on the two bills has been stalled in the Rules Committee for years, despite bipartisan passage in the state senate.

If you ask leaders of Richmond-based LGBT rights group Equality Virginia or local LGBT leaders, movement on the house bills in Richmond marks significant progress — and has a lot to do with Virginia Beach.

“In the fight to pass statewide protections for LGBT Virginians, no one city is more important than Virginia Beach,” said Michael Berlucchi, who sits on the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission. Several state delegates from Virginia Beach sit on committees that have blocked the nondiscrimination bills.

Related story: ‘Gender identity’ now in Virginia Beach equal employment policy

Berlucchi also heads Virginia Beach for Fairness, which is a coalition of community members who work to eliminate discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Virginians.

As part of its a statewide mission to pass anti-discrimination bills in Richmond, Equality Virginia formed the group: Virginia Beach Fairness. Together, they embarked in July 2018 to pressure local leaders.

“As co-chair of the local Virginia Beach for Fairness campaign, I have had a chance to meet with business owners, faith leaders, and lawmakers who know that passing these protections is not only the right thing to do, but it is good for business and strengthens our neighborhoods,” Berlucchi said.

James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, 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.

Related story: ‘Equality’ and ‘Fairness’ team up to pressure delegates in Virginia Beach

All five state senators from Virginia Beach have voted in support of these bills, and the City of Virginia Beach formally endorsed the legislation in their 2019 legislative agenda.

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.

The Virginia Beach Restaurant Association and the Virginia Beach Resort Advisory Commission both issued letters to the legislature in the past year supporting the house bills, according to a news release from Parrish.

“There is a groundswell of support for bills that would protect Virginians from discrimination in housing and public employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Parrish said. “Now, the House of Delegates must act.”

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