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Conservative GOP congressman presides at same-sex wedding in Virginia

Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), center in dark suit, presides over the wedding of Alex Pisciarino, left, and Anthony  LeCounte at King Family Vineyards in Crozet, Va., on Sunday.
Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), center in dark suit, presides over the wedding of Alex Pisciarino, left, and Anthony LeCounte at King Family Vineyards in Crozet, Va., on Sunday. (Christine Riggleman)

Anthony LeCounte and Alex Pisciarino promised their guests a “fabulous gay summer wedding.” The setting was a vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The dress code, a seersucker-linen-chiffon homage to the Kentucky Derby.

And the officiant was a Republican congressman from a conservative district in the rural South.

Rep. Denver Riggleman (Va.) did the honors for LeCounte and Pisciarino on Sunday evening at King Family Vineyards in Crozet, west of Charlottesville.

Just a few years ago, it was unusual even for socially liberal elected officials to preside over same-sex weddings. Terry McAuliffe (D) was the first Southern governor to do so when he helped two women tie the knot in October 2014, just days after the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage by declining to take up a lower-court ruling overturning the state’s ban.

At the time, the New York Times noted a few officials who’d beaten McAuliffe to it, all from deeply blue territory: New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, then an independent, as well as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Among Southern Republicans, that sort of thing remains a rarity. Officials at several national gay rights groups contacted could recall just one case: a Texas judge who officiated at a 2016 wedding and then quit the party soon after.

Riggleman represents Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, largely rural territory that varies widely in character and politics, from blue-blood polo country to cattle farms, with a few liberal college communities in the mix. Donald Trump won the district by 11 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.

Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer who owns a distillery in Nelson County with his wife, ran for the seat in 2018 as a conservative Republican with a libertarian streak. As a “liberty Republican,” he wanted Planned Parenthood defunded, government shrunk — and marijuana decriminalized. As for marriage, he said the government needed to treat straight and gay the same out of basic fairness.

“My real belief is that government shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all, but if it is, everybody has to be treated equally before the law,” Riggleman said in an interview Monday. “And that is part of our Republican creed. And it also comes down to love is love. I’m happy to join two people together who obviously love each other.”

Still, as a lawmaker, Riggleman opposed the Equality Act, legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And he voted against a resolution opposing President Trump’s ban on transgender service members.

“A clear way to show his support for LGBT Virginians would be to support the Equality Act,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia.

Riggleman said he thought the legislation infringed on parental rights. And he said the issue of transgender service members needs more study. “I thought it went too far, as far as condemning something that we’re still studying,” he said.

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The conservative Family Foundation declined to comment on his role at the wedding, as did the Republican Party of Virginia.

The couple moved to Charlottesville a year ago when Pisciarino, 27, began studies at the University of Virginia’s law school. They met one of Riggleman’s volunteers at a Target store, attended a few campaign events, hit it off with Riggleman and soon began volunteering for his campaign. LeCounte, 30, will begin a graduate degree at the university’s Darden School of Business next month.

When they decided to get hitched, the said they wanted Riggleman to preside — both as a friend and as someone whose politics they respect.

Riggleman is hardly the only Republican to come down on the side of gay rights. Even in Virginia, a handful have supported state legislation to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing and public employment. But the Republican-controlled General Assembly has defeated those measures.

“In general, a lot of Republicans in Virginia have not been very good on that issue,” LeCounte said.

But this year, the legislature did pass a bill to make it easier for same-sex couples to have children through surrogacy — a measure that got an assist from former Republican governor George Allen. The measure was inspired by a costly year-long legal battle endured by Allen’s longtime chief of staff, Jay Timmons, and his husband, Rick Olson.

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The couple Riggleman married met at a Log Cabin Republicans event in the District. And like Riggleman, they consider themselves conservatives, not moderates. They support gun rights, for example. Pisciarino’s first job was for the tax-and-spending hawk Club for Growth. LeCounte, an Army brat, wants a strong national defense.

“We’re not moderate,” LeCounte said. “We’re both pretty staunchly conservative.”

The moderate Republicans who are more likely to embrace gay rights tend to be “squishy on issues we care about,” he said.

“He’s a conservative Republican,” Pisciarino said of Riggleman. “He’s just accepting.”

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