Va. Law Spurs Gays To Activism
Contract Prohibition Energizes Community
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page B01
Kevin Adler, a gay man living with his partner in Arlington County, has never been one to organize rallies or raise a cry on behalf of gay causes.
"I tended to keep these things to myself and in private," said Adler, 36.
Then he took a look at the Old Dominion's new law that reaffirms the state's ban on same-sex marriages and prohibits all contractual rights between same-sex partners, and he got to wondering: What's the law's point? The state already had passed a law banning civil unions in 1997. It was obvious that gay men and lesbians had limited rights in the commonwealth. Something in this new law, he thought, went beyond the pale.
"It's just a mean-spirited law that only serves to keep us back," said Adler, a marketing agent who has lived in Virginia for 12 years. "It just seems to go way too far in making us feel like we're not wanted here."
He felt a new political activism emerging in his life. During the past month, Adler said, he's participated in political events that he once thought never did any good. He has organized friends, gay and straight. He has attended fundraisers.
The legal impacts of the legislation passed by the General Assembly in March remain to be seen. Its provisions took effect July 1. But gay rights activists say it already has generated new political energy among gay men and women in Virginia.
Many opponents have said the statute has the potential to nullify a variety of contracts used by same-sex couples to create rights and benefits such as custody arrangements and advance medical directives; supporters say it merely clarifies and reaffirms what has long been Virginia law.
The legislation, House Bill 751, "was drawn up to eliminate any escape hatch same-sex marriage advocates might try to find for their agenda," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who introduced the measure. Under the new law, Virginia will not recognize unions and partnerships even if they were created in states that recognize such unions. Virginia already had banned adoptions by gay couples and had tight restrictions on the ability of some companies to offer domestic partnership benefits.
"There is no exit, no finesse, for any same-sex legal relationship," Marshall said.
Gay rights activists say this sentiment has sparked a change in the mood of a community they describe as long dormant politically.
For years, gays in Virginia have been content to go about their lives quietly, not engaging in much social or political unrest, activists and other gay men and women said. Many said they believed they lived in a state unfriendly to their interests and figured that all the activism in the world wouldn't change what they perceived as a conservative state hostile to their lifestyle.
"We've pretty much gone along to get along," said Jay Fisette (D), an Arlington County Board member who became the commonwealth's first openly gay elected official in 1997. He said the Virginia law, as well as the efforts in Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and possibly civil unions, has caught the attention of gays in Virginia.
"A lot of people are saying that now is the time for us to make a stand," he said.
Last month, more than 1,000 protesters across the state staged simultaneous protest rallies in Fairfax County, Staunton, Hampton Roads, Roanoke and Richmond. The numbers were relatively modest statewide, but activists said it was an important first step.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company