Virginia is the only state in the South that has more protections for than discriminatory policies against LGBTQIA+ people.
This story was originally published by The 19th.
Even as Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has worked to restrict the rights of trans youth, Virginia remains the sole state in the South with more protections for LGBTQIA+ people than discriminatory policies—a status that could change after this week’s elections.
It’s the only state in the region that has passed into law nondiscrimination protections that include LGBTQIA+ people. Virginia does not allow health insurers to discriminate against transgender people, bans conversion therapy, and has statewide employment protections and inclusive hate crime laws.
If Republicans take control of the state Senate and keep control of the House of Delegates, LGBTQIA+ rights advocates fear that the state’s historic—and only recently achieved—progress for LGBTQIA+ people will backslide.
Virginia’s legislative races are the most critical election for LGBTQIA+ people in the state in recent memory, said Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia.
“This year, specifically this session, we had over 12 anti-trans bills introduced in the state legislature, and that was the most we have ever had, even when we’ve been under previous Republican trifectas,” she said. Those bills were blocked in the Democrat-controlled state Senate.
Families from elsewhere in the South move to Virginia because of how many guaranteed protections for LGBTQIA+ people are written into law there. In emails to Equality Virginia, conversations with partner advocacy groups, and posts to LGBTQIA+ Facebook groups, Rahaman has seen some of those families’ stories, including from teachers from Florida and families of transgender and nonbinary youth from Tennessee.
Virginia is a haven right now for trans youth seeking gender-affirming care, said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. As one of two states in the South, alongside South Carolina, that has not passed a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth, Virginia is serving its own residents as well as families from bordering states seeking such care.
“All of that is at stake with the legislative elections that are coming up,” Beach-Ferrara said.
Virginia Republicans led by Youngkin have specifically targeted trans youth in recent years. The Youngkin administration implemented new guidance for school districts in July that directs students to use school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their sex at birth and make it harder for them to use their preferred name and pronouns at school. Some school districts have declined to adhere to the guidance, which is not binding state law. That could change if Republicans take full control of the legislature.
During a campaign rally last month in Fredericksburg, a key battleground in this election, Youngkin did not specifically address trans youth—or abortion, a key issue in the election. But, door tags handed out to volunteers at the event for canvassing included a bullet that read “protect our girls in youth sports”—one of four items in a list of the GOP’s “ conservative agenda for Virginia.”
Asked about the bullet point, a Youngkin spokesperson pointed to comments the governor made after 10 swimmers in the Roanoke College women’s swim team publicly called on the NCAA to bar trans women from competing on women’s sports teams. The swimmers held a news conference on the matter after a trans student requested to join the team; that student eventually withdrew their request.
“These women took a moment to stand up to protect their sports,” Youngkin said in a statement. “It’s a matter of fairness. And the reality, of course, is that biological men should compete with biological men and biological girls should compete with biological girls.”
Del. Danica Roem, who is in a competitive race for a state Senate seat in Northern Virginia, said Republicans focused much of their attention in the most recent legislative session on trans youth.
“Their priority was to single out, stigmatize, ostracize and dehumanize transgender students in Virginia,” said Roem, who in 2017 became the first openly transgender lawmaker in the United States. She’s hoping to be part of a Democratic majority in the Senate to continue to block GOP efforts on the issue but has focused her campaign on addressing quality-of-life issues for people in her district.
Roem is running against Republican Bill Woolf in a multimillion-dollar race. Roem said her opponent has targeted her with about a dozen mailers, and radio and TV ads, focusing on trans girls’ participation in youth sports and referring to them as “boys.”
“Vote to protect girls’ sports,” one recent mailer reads. “By voting against Danica Roem and her reckless ‘boys in girls’ spaces’ policies.”
Virginia’s status as a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ Southerners came only recently and stems from Democrats’ historic 2019 sweep of the state government, said Logan Casey, director of policy research at the Movement Advancement Project, which tracks LGBTQIA+ policy.
In 2020, Virginia enacted a slew of LGBTQIA+-inclusive nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing, education and public accommodations; banned conversion therapy; created health care protections for transgender people; and enacted inclusive hate crime protections, Casey said. The Virginia Values Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, credit, employment, and other realms, was key to the state’s progress.
Josh Cole, a former delegate who lost his seat during the Republican “red wave” in 2021, said passing the Virginia Values Act was one of the most memorable moments of his career.
“These were things that we would have never even thought of if we hadn’t had control of the General Assembly,” said Cole, who is bisexual and running to return to the Virginia House in a highly competitive race against Republican Lee Peters. The seat is held by Del. Tara Durant, now a state Senate candidate, who in January introduced a bill to require school personnel to notify a student’s parents if they have reason to believe the student is identifying as transgender.
Democrats in the Senate eventually blocked Durant’s proposal. If Republicans take control of the Senate and keep their majority in the House, such a measure could quickly become law.
Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the LGBTQIA+ rights group Human Rights Campaign, said Virginia’s pro-LGBTQIA+ policies have shown other states what is possible in the South—particularly the law that made it possible for cities and counties to protectively adopt nondiscrimination protections. If Republicans take both chambers of the legislature, there’s a real fear that they would replicate anti-LGBTQIA+ laws passed in other states, she said.
“The governor has made no bones about what he would like to see happen,” Warbelow said. “He’s already weaponized the administrative state to try to strip away the rights of LGBTQIA+ people, particularly trans young folks, by putting in place Department of Education guidance that’s designed to make it harder for young trans people to operate in schools.”
A significant number of LGBTQIA+ people live in the South, where the most hostile policies toward LGBTQIA+ people are in place. These harmful laws don’t necessarily represent what people living in these states actually believe, Beach-Ferrara said, but are a reflection of disproportionate power among far-right Republicans.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll found that while education is the biggest issue for voters, only 34 percent of registered voters in Virginia say transgender issues in schools are very important to their vote. The same poll found that more voters disapprove of Youngkin’s handling of transgender issues than approve, 43 percent to 37 percent, though the governor remains widely popular in the state.
North Carolina is a cautionary tale of how precarious the political situation for LGBTQIA+ people in the South can be, Beach-Ferrara said. One former Democrat in that state, Rep. Tricia Cotham, switched to the Republican Party this spring, granting the GOP a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature. That paved the way for the passage of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills, including a gender-affirming care ban and a transgender school sports ban that both passed in August, Beach-Ferrara said.
“The difference between those being held off and those passing was one elected official switching political parties,” she said. “What we’re looking at is when Republicans gain enough power, they are advancing a very extremist agenda as aggressively and quickly as they can.”
Control of the Virginia House and Senate will come down to fewer than a dozen highly competitive races, and polling suggests a dead heat between Republicans and Democrats.
Asked whether they favor a generic Democrat or Republican in the race for the Virginia House, 47 percent favored Democrats and 43 percent Republicans, the Washington Post/Schar School poll conducted in mid-October found. Among independent voters, there was no statistically significant edge for either party.
Rahaman said that, even if Republicans take the state legislature, local advocates will continue working for LGBTQIA+ equality—which they have done under other Republican trifectas.
“If we wake up on November 8, after election night, and we have a Republican trifecta, all hope is not lost,” she said. Virginia Equality plans to continue having conversations with lawmakers at the General Assembly that share the personal experiences of LGBTQIA+ people and to get Virginians to testify in committee hearings about how harmful bills impact them. Voters also hold the power in their hands to act before election day, she said.
“We have same-day voter registration now in Virginia,” she said. “I think my message to Virginians, whether they are LGBTQ, whether they are allies, is don’t sit this one out.”
If Democrats are successful, Cole said LGBTQIA+ representation in the statehouse could reach historic levels with 10 out lawmakers in the 140-seat legislature—including a record number of LGBTQIA+ lawmakers of color.
“We have so many different walks of life that are coming to this table, that are going to be leading the voice in Richmond to fight for our LGBTQIA community,” Cole said. “That’s exciting and that’s empowering.”
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