Michael Paul Williams

Times-Disptach columnist Michael Paul Williams

For Virginia’s same-sex couples, wedded bliss comes with a bittersweet toast.

“Virginia is one of 16 states where gay and lesbian couples can be legally married today, but can go to work tomorrow and be fired just for being gay,” Kirsten Bokenkamp of Equality Virginia testified before a House of Delegates subcommittee Thursday.

A bill co-sponsored by state Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, would have prohibited discrimination against local and state employees based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or status as a veteran.

The bill, which had passed the Senate, flamed out along party lines in a House subcommittee, with Republicans opposing it.

I’m doubting that the hangup was protection for veterans.

Let me guess: Was this about the continued resistance in our statehouse to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights?

“Oh absolutely,” McEachin said after the vote. “I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, seconded that.

“It’s completely about certain people making every effort to make sure that sexual orientation and gender identity will not be entered into the Virginia code,” he said.

A legislature with a long legacy of bigotry again rejected a measure to fight discrimination.

Sadly, it’s the Virginia way.

“There are some ways in which Virginia resolutely stands with its face toward its history, as opposed to its future,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU.

More than four decades ago, Gov. Linwood Holton — in an attempt to turn Virginia toward a more inclusive future — began a gubernatorial tradition to issue executive orders pledging equal opportunity and protection from discrimination in the workplace.

More recently, Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine extended those protections to include discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bob McDonnell removed that protection, but Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored it and expanded it to include gender identity.

But remarkably, the General Assembly has never incorporated into the state code a comprehensive ban on discrimination in public employment. The executive orders, however sweet-sounding, are essentially toothless in court.

“If you look at the other states, frankly, across the board, Virginia is one of a very few states that doesn’t have a functioning state-level civil rights agency enforcing a state civil rights law,” Gastañaga said.

If these anti-discrimination bills have been viewed as LGBT measures, perhaps it’s because that community stands the most to gain or lose.

“Most people look at it as, ‘You’re protected by federal law,’ ” Parrish said. But federal anti-discrimination protections do not extend to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The failure of this measure once again sends the wrong message. Our state, for all its “Open for Business” sloganeering, is out of step with corporations and the young, diverse, creative class of workers they covet.

The majority of Fortune 500 companies have policies in place to protect their LGBT employees. And in January, Equality Virginia awarded five Virginia-based Fortune 500 companies — Altria, Capital One, CarMax, Dominion, and Genworth — with Virginia Fairness Accreditation for policies that welcome LGBT employees.

If lawmakers can’t see this, perhaps it’s because they’re too busy looking over their shoulder for potential primary challengers in their gerrymandered districts, which give outsize voices to the fringes. As a result, public policies with broad public support — from common-sense firearms restrictions to Medicaid expansion to protections against job discrimination — cannot garner approval in our legislature.

The nation may have turned the tide on marriage equality — 37 states have it — but protection against job discrimination remains more of a work in progress.

Eighteen states have statewide laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; three additional states protect sexual orientation only, according to the Denver-based Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a think tank that provides research and analysis on behalf of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

According to MAP, 52 percent of the LGBT population lives in states that do not prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

And then there’s Virginia, a state that doesn’t even bother to protect its public employees from discrimination. We should be embarrassed and ashamed.

McEachin is resolute.

“Virginia will have it. It will pass one day. I am the eternal optimist. And we’ll keep pushing until we get this bill to the other side.”

It won’t happen until employment discrimination becomes everyone’s fight.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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