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LGBTQ advocates dismayed but undaunted by legislative losses

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The General Assembly's 2019 session was a disappointment for LGBTQ advocates as most legislation on health care, marriage and legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity failed. But activists are not giving up.

"I would encourage people not to be discouraged because we are going to be back next year," said Bill Harrison, president of Diversity Richmond, which supports cultural, health and other programs for the LGBTQ community.

At the start of the legislative session, LGBTQ activists had high hopes of tackling a range of issues.

In Virginia, for example, it is legal for a business or public institution to discriminate against people in housing or employment or to deny or limit health insurance on the basis of sexual identity or sexual orientation.

Moreover, while the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage in Virginia and across the country, the Virginia Constitution and Code of Virginia contain obsolete language that prohibits such unions.

This year, 15 bills were introduced in the General Assembly to address concerns of interest especially to the LGBTQ community. Nearly all of them were killed in committee or subcommittee.

Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, and Sen. George Barker D-Fairfax, proposed legislation to prohibit health insurance companies from limiting or denying coverage or imposing additional costs based on a person's gender identity or transgender status. Both bills died.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and Democratic Dels. Kenneth Plum of Fairfax and Cheryl Turpin of Virginia Beach proposed adding gender, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation to the state's definition of hate crimes. None of those proposals made it out of committee.

Turpin said she is "disappointed" that her hate crimes bill did not advance, but she intends to continue to push for LGBTQ rights.

"I believe that we need to continue to fight for the LGBTQ community, and I will continue to do so," Turpin said. "I believe that HB 2684 is good for the commonwealth and is the will of my district."

In 2006, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as "a union between one man and one woman" and prohibited the commonwealth from recognizing same-sex marriages. That language still exists even though it has been invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Democratic Sens. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria and John Edwards of Roanoke proposed a constitutional amendment to repeal the 2006 amendment. Their proposal failed on a tie vote in the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections.

"It is unfortunate that the General Assembly failed to pass marriage equality legislation and a constitutional amendment that I and Sen. Ebbin introduced," Edwards said. "I plan to keep bringing this legislation back until it passes."

Ebbin and Edwards also introduced legislation to repeal the statutory prohibitions on same-sex marriages and civil unions in the Code of Virginia. Their measure was defeated in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on a 7-8 vote.
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For the fourth consecutive year, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sponsored a bill to outlaw discrimination in employment, housing, banking, insurance and certain other areas on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

His bill bounced from one House committee to another and never received a hearing.

"I think it is wrong," Levine said. "To refuse to hear a bill is undemocratic. I think it is a violation of what our system is about."

Levine speculates that Republican leaders wanted to avoid voting on bills related to LGBTQ equality.

"This is a subject that Republicans are very uncomfortable about. I think the entirety of my Democratic Caucus would support this measure," Levine said. "I'm going to offer this bill every year until it becomes law."

In total, of the 15 bills regarding LGBTQ rights, only one won approval from the General Assembly during the legislative session that ended Sunday. HB 1979, introduced by Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Arlington, passed 63-36 in the House and 28-12 in the Senate. It now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature.

The measure updates Virginia's surrogacy, assisted conception and adoption laws by providing gender-neutral terminology and clarifying the surrogacy process. The bill would allow "an unmarried individual to be an intended parent paralleling the ability of an unmarried individual to adopt under the adoption statutes."

"I am glad that both chambers of the General Assembly passed this important bill on a bipartisan basis, affording same-sex couples and intended single parents the same rights as heterosexual couples wishing to start or grow their family through surrogacy," Sullivan said.

"Family equality is at the heart of this bill, and I look forward to the governor signing it into law."

Harrison, who has been an advocate for the gay community since the 1970s, sees a certain degree of bipartisan support for LGBTQ equality but also hesitation among "top Republican leadership" to pass legislation.

"I think the day of only Democrats being on our side has passed. We have had some extremely vocal Republican advocates this year," Harrison said.

"We will prevail. It is a matter of time, but we will prevail."