The pre-Valentine’s Day decision by U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen declaring Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional is a historic turning point in the long struggle for equality in the commonwealth — the first state in the Old Confederacy to have its ban overturned. The ruling came on the heels of recent decisions by federal district judges in Utah and Oklahoma who found no rational basis for denying gay couples the right to marry. The centuries-old walls of discrimination are crumbling brick by brick as state legislatures, courts and the American people are accepting their LGBT brothers and sisters, with increasing speed and understanding, for exactly who they are.
In what has become a frequent and familiar refrain, Allen insisted in her ruling that “perpetuating traditions” for their own sake cannot stand in the way of loving couples’ freedom to commit their lives to each other. As pointed out by Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) in his decision not to defend the ban, the commonwealth has been on the wrong side of far too many civil rights battles, notably the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia case striking down our state’s prohibition on interracial marriage.
This month, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), author of the 2006 ballot initiative that wrote marriage inequality into Virginia’s constitution, rose on the House floor to state his beliefs. He described the “LGBT lifestyle” as a series of “life shortening and health compromising behaviors.” Another delegate said that there was “overwhelming science demonstrating that children have better outcomes when they are by a mother and father,” suggesting that members of the LGBT community are not fit to raise children. It is hard to believe that in 2014, such ignorant and cruel words could be spoken in the chamber of a legislative body as old and venerable as Virginia’s.
What effect do such insults have on the bullied high school students in Salem, Chesapeake, Harrisonburg or Culpeper who are questioning their sexuality, afraid of how classmates or family members might react if they come out? How will Virginians a generation from now look back at the codified discrimination and virulent rhetoric that has characterized the gay marriage debate in this state? Will they be proud that the laws — and lawmakers — of the commonwealth once again stood in the way of progress, compassion and full equality under the law?
Hearing such caustic remarks yet again on the House floor, coupled with the overturning of our same-sex marriage ban, has motivated me to state publicly here what many close friends and family have known for decades: I am a proud, gay man. When I was 21 years old, I realized and accepted that I was different from most of my friends. In my teens, I did not get excited about the prom or asking my girlfriends out for a date. Although many of my closest friends have been women, I felt a deeper connection to men. This acceptance of my sexual orientation, or “coming out” to myself, was such an incredible relief. I have always lived openly with my neighbors, friends and family, lived a full life and never regretted the way I was born. But the current moment in Virginia has convinced me that it could be helpful to share this aspect of my life with all of my constituents.
My life is hardly a secret to political friends and foes. In my first reelection campaign to the House of Delegates in 2005, my opponent used homophobic innuendo in an attempt to discredit me with voters who, he must have presumed, would be appalled to discover that their elected representative was a gay man in a long-term relationship. He told this newspaper and others that mail I sent out (featuring a picture of me playing with a toddler) was “deliberately misleading the voters” because “Mark Sickles does not have a child or a family.” His campaign manager added: “His sexual orientation is a mystery to us. We were just looking for honesty in the campaign.”
In my political life as a Democratic activist, local committee chairman, state central committee member and member of the House of Delegates — the past two years as Democratic Caucus chairman — I have tried to build a pragmatic and principled opposition to an increasingly far-right Republican Party. In helping to find votes for bills that protect all minorities, and in helping to defeat bills that marginalize many Virginia citizens, I have worked for full equality and against discriminatory statutes like the Marshall-Newman constitutional amendment that prevents someone like me from getting married.
Our successors will not believe we once had hundreds of federal rights and benefits denied to a sizable minority of our citizens because of whom they love and choose to share their lives with. I am fully convinced that this month’s ruling will help strengthen all marriages in the commonwealth. As Judge Allen succinctly wrote: “This is consistent with our nation’s traditions of freedoms.”
The writer, a Democrat, represents Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates. He is a candidate for the U.S. House in the state’s 8th Congressional District.