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.
"We had no idea we would get this kind of response," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, the chief organizer of the events and the state's most active gay rights organization.
Mason said gay rights activists are developing strategies to repeal the law, which passed the Senate and House of Delegates by wide margins.
The activists say the law violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process and equal protection. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights organization, plan to work with activists to challenge the law in court.
Other smaller efforts include embarking on a statewide lobbying tour, talking with state lawmakers about gay rights issues and expanding local organizations in places not usually friendly to gay rights.
"This law is seen as an attack on private contracts . . . things that people have taken great care in crafting to help live their lives," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), Virginia's first openly gay state lawmaker. He said many gay people see HB 751 as directly invading their lives, in a way that the commonwealth's previous ban on gay marriages and unions did not.
Marshall said he was skeptical of the recent organizational efforts.
"All of this is just an attempt to fundraise and call attention to the gay cause in Virginia," he said.
"Where were all these people in 1997 when the original bill was passed?" he asked, referring to the Affirmation of Marriage Act.
Henry Fradella, a law professor at the College of New Jersey who studies gay rights issues, saw the contrast in responses as important.
This new activism "is significant largely because in 1997 you really didn't see this kind of outcry in Virginia," he said. "But I think what you're seeing is this community -- which has largely been quiet for so long accepting that they lived in a conservative state -- saying: 'You know what? We're not going to take this anymore.' "
The Virginia law drew an outcry from gay rights organizations nationwide. Activists in Seattle designed a Web site called "Virginia Is for Haters," a dig at the state's tourism slogan "Virginia Is for Lovers." They called for a national tourist boycott against the commonwealth.
Supporters of the Virginia law say the concern expressed by the activists is out of line with the law's effect.
"All this talk about not being able to make hospital visitations is just a red herring," said Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun). "I really don't think they're doing a good job in trying to convince the majority of Virginians."
Other observers and legal experts said the state clearly had the right to place boundaries around marital benefits.
"I certainly think that state legislatures have the power to limit -- by whatever statutory language is necessary to make the point stick to reluctant courts -- marital benefits to married couples," said Gerard V. Bradley, a constitutional law professor at Notre Dame University.
Law scholars who think that the statute is unconstitutional acknowledge that it will be difficult to overturn.
Showing injury is problematic, said John Paul Jones, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond. "A lot of it will depend on how they approach the case and on what grounds they choose to base a constitutional claim."
In the meantime, members of the emboldened gay community say they will continue their efforts.
"This is just the beginning," said Rob Shore, Adler's partner. "A lot of us see this as an awakening."
Kevin Adler, who lives with his partner in Arlington County, calls the law "mean-spirited" and says it prodded him to act.