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LGBT bills clear Virginia Senate and head to a friendly House of Delegates

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), Virginia’s first transgender legislator, wears a rainbow scarf while canvassing a neighborhood in 2017.
Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), Virginia’s first transgender legislator, wears a rainbow scarf while canvassing a neighborhood in 2017. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate on Tuesday passed a host of LGBT rights bills as Democrats continued to flex their new power in the Capitol.

The Senate voted to ban conversion therapy on children, repeal the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage and establish statewide policies for the treatment of transgender students. The chamber also voted to replace “husband and wife” with gender-neutral “parties to the marriage” language in divorce law and make it easier for transgender people to change how their sex is listed on their birth certificates.

The bills now move to the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates, where they are expected to get a warm reception.

Advocates for expanded LGBT rights have long been stymied by the General Assembly, where Republicans have controlled at least one chamber for the past quarter-century. A few Senate Republicans were willing in recent years to team up with the Democratic minority on measures such as banning discrimination against LGBT people in housing and public employment. But those bills never got to the floor of the House of Delegates, where Republicans were also in charge.

The landscape is vastly different this year, after Democrats flipped both the House and Senate in November elections.

“This is really just bringing Virginia into the 21st century,” said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the first openly gay lawmaker in the General Assembly. “Voters showed us they wanted equality on November 5th, and the Senate of Virginia has started to deliver on that.”

A few Republicans voted for some of the measures on Tuesday, while one socially conservative Democrat, Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (Chesapeake), ducked out of the chamber repeatedly to avoid taking a position.

“I just leave those alone,” Spruill said when asked why he left the chamber for those votes.

The ban on conversion therapy generated the most debate and passed 21 to 18, with Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) casting the lone GOP vote in favor. The widely discredited practice purports to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Critics say it is traumatic for patients and has led to suicides.

The ban would not apply to adults who choose the therapy for themselves.

Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford) said there were some versions of conversion therapy that everyone would agree are inappropriate, referring to “shock therapy” and instances in which therapists “took people to camps and did odd things.”

But Newman said he had “very deep concerns about putting standards of [medical] care in the code of Virginia,” noting that Democrats have opposed Republicans’ efforts to do that at times.

Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico), an obstetrician-gynecologist, said she shared that concern and would vote against the bill for that reason “even though I’m opposed to conversion therapy.”

Another bill, brought by Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax), would make it easier for transgender people to change what sex is listed on their birth certificates. They would have to demonstrate that they have undergone treatment for gender transition, but the bill would eliminate a requirement that the person first undergo gender reassignment surgery.

The bill passed 24 to 15, with Republican Sens. Dunnavant, Vogel, Bill DeSteph (Virginia Beach) and Jen A. Kiggans (Virginia Beach) voting in favor.

Boysko also sponsored a bill requiring the state Department of Education to develop model policies for the treatment of transgender students in public elementary and secondary schools. Local school boards would be free to adopt more comprehensive policies of their own, as long as they were consistent with the statewide policy.

The measure passed 23 to 16, with DeSteph, Dunnavant and Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) in support.

The measure to make the state’s divorce statute gender-neutral passed with only two “no” votes, Sens. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) and William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin).

Ebbin sponsored the bill to take a ban on same-sex marriage out of the state code. Although same-sex marriage has been recognized in Virginia since October 2014 and across the country since June 2015, a bill to repeal the defunct ban failed last year.

On Tuesday, it passed 25 to 13, with DeSteph, Dunnavant, Kiggans, Vogel and Sen. David R. Suetterlein (R-Roanoke) supporting it. Spruill and Norment did not vote.

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