A mix of emotions for Virginia state Sen. Ebbin after same-sex marriage ban is struck down


State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin talks during an interview at his legislative office at the Capitol in Richmond. (Timothy Wright/For the Washington Post)

As he knotted his checked tie and rushed to down some Raisin Bran from a paper bowl Friday morning, the first and only openly gay member of Virginia’s General Assembly had his mind on marriage — and a man who missed out.

Adam P. Ebbin had been up since 4:30 a.m., still with adrenaline pumping from the news hours earlier that a federal judge in Norfolk had ruled Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

“I wonder if George would have ever possibly conceived of this,” said Ebbin, a Democrat who represents parts of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax in the state Senate.

George C. Rawlings Jr. of Fredericksburg served in the House of Delegates in the 1960s. He was married to a woman then and did not come out publicly until years after leaving the legislature. Rawlings died more than two years after his House and Senate successors and a majority of Virginia voters passed a state constitutional amendment outlawing marriage for gays and lesbians.

It was easier for Ebbin, who turned 50 in November. But it still wasn’t easy.

As he walked toward the General Assembly building Friday morning, there was a mixture of emotions: joy that a federal court in Virginia joined a steady stream to overturn state bans on same-sex marriage following action by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a sense that the struggles he and others faced remain fresh.

“I always thought if you were gay, you could never get married, you’d never be able to have children,” he said. “I didn’t know you could be gay and be happy.”

Now he’s both. And Friday was a particularly good day.

Riding the elevator as he headed to a meeting of fellow Democrats before the Senate convened, Ebbin ran into a pair of colleagues. One pulled out a towering newspaper headline: “JUDGE RULES BAN UNCONSTITUTIONAL.”

He had not seen it yet. “Isn’t that great?” Ebbin said.

Ebbin grew up on Long Island. He joined the legislature in 2004 and is running for Congress in a crowded field to replace U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D).

Ebbin said he would be unhappy to be known only as the “gay guy” in Virginia’s legislature. He also is the guy who helped create an office of the public defender in Arlington and successfully pushed to get pregnant immigrants covered under Medicaid, he said.

A note his Aunt Janice, now deceased, gave him when he was sworn in sits behind his desk. “Please keep being an advocate for the little guy,” it reads.

“I don’t mind being a two-fer. I just want to be more than the gay guy,” Ebbin said.

After Ebbin slipped behind closed doors for the Democratic caucus, Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. walked down the black-and-white checkered corridor.

More moderate Republicans like Norment, who voted for the ban, are left facing something of a squeeze, showing signs that they would prefer to leave the issue behind them but also not wanting to be seen as too far from the Republican mainstream.

Norment, for instance, slammed Attorney General Mark R. Herring for declining to defend the ban in the Norfolk case that led to Thursday’s ruling in federal court. But Norment also said there has been “a perceivable shift” in the attitudes of Virginians, and Americans, on the issue.

“I supported the marriage amendment. I’m pretty ecumenical in my thoughts about it,” Norment said. “I think the courts are ultimately going to have to decide if it’s a denial of equal protection. I’ll be very respectful. If the courts decide that, I’m fine with it.”

Norment has “lots of friends who have alternative lifestyles. . . . I don’t look them and say, ‘Hey, he’s gay, there’s something wrong with him.,’ ” he said. “They’re my friends, they’re my work associates.. . . It’s very obvious to me that maybe my thoughts on this have evolved just like Virginians’ have.”

Ebbin emerged from his caucus with Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who beamed at the news and the man beside her.

“It takes a lot of guts to do what he’s done all of these years. I really admire him for it,” Howell said. “When Adam first came here, the attitude was hostile in a lot of quarters. He stood up for who he is, and by example and by being a good friend of people I think it’s changed a lot of minds.”

During Friday’s Senate session, Ebbin himself spoke up, standing up behind the tiny Virginia flag on his desk for “a point of personal privilege.”

“Last night, something wonderful happened,” he began, containing his emotion.

The court ruling had removed “the stain” on Virginia’s constitution, Ebbin said. “I believe this country, and the commonwealth, are on an unstoppable path toward equality for all.”

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) walked up to him afterward, patted him softly on the back twice and punched him softly on an arm. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” McEachin told him.

He entered a different realm down the hall in the House chamber, where he ambled after the Senate adjourned. There, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), one of the sponsors of the amendment banning same-sex marriage, railed against U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, who wrote Thursday’s decision.

“This judge has far overstepped her bounds. She needs to be taken off the federal bench,” Marshall said. Ebbin was not visibly irked; he had missed the part in which Marshall assailed the “life-shortening and health-compromising behaviors associated with an LGBT lifestyle.” Eventually, he went back to his e-mail on his iPad. Several colleagues from both parties walked up to quietly shake his hand in a show of camaraderie.

But when Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Bedford) took the floor, Ebbin looked up from the screen and stared her way.

Byron faulted Wright Allen for “her animus toward legislators like me” as well as Virginia’s voters, and asserted that research shows that children are better off with heterosexual parents. Heterosexual marriage has served for “thousands of years as the basis of Western civilization,” she said, all of which elicited an angry chuckle from Ebbin.

The House moved on to other business and Ebbin left for his office.

“I wanted to go over to her desk and grab the mike,” he said, though he did neither. “That’s not allowed, and that’s not appropriate.”

He and legislative aide Sam Bosch, 23, discussed a transportation bill. Then Bosch mentioned the details of a recent hostile phone call from a constituent. They get a couple such calls every few months, Bosch said. Bosch doesn’t always convey the full venom he hears, and Ebbin was a bit taken aback.

The constituent was furious at Herring’s decision not to defend the same-sex marriage ban, and he showered Bosch with what he politely termed inappropriate language. Finally, the man angrily asked Bosch about himself.

“He said, straight out, ‘Are you gay?’ ” Bosch said. And when Bosch wouldn’t answer, the man took it as proof of his bias and insisted he be given someone else to speak with.

“I’m sorry,” Ebbin said.

“The truth is, I am,” Bosch said. “But I wasn’t going to tell him that.”

Ebbin is single and something of a Valentine’s Day Scrooge. All of the cupcakes with little red toppers; balloons; flowers; and teddy bears wearing red jumpsuits surrounding him in the General Assembly building were a little much. But that doesn’t mean he is not a romantic — or that he doesn’t want to get married.

He said he is just waiting to meet “the right guy.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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