I spent an hour and a half in the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee meeting today, waiting for and then witnessing the debate over Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) and Sen. Mamie Lock‘s (D-Hampton) SB 700. It was well worth the time.
The purpose of the bill is to modify the employment discrimination prohibition to make it illegal for state agencies to refuse to hire people because they’re gay or straight. Most states have such laws. Over a third of states also bar such discrimination at private employers. Nearly every major employer in the state has chosen to adopt such policies, including Wal-Mart, Northrop Grummin, Food Lion, UVa, VT and GMU. (Source: Washington Post)
The thing about this bill is that it doesn’t actually change anything. Governor Mark Warner’s Executive Order One — instituted by Governor Tim Kaine, too — bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. So by executive fiat, this is already the law of the land.
Again, SB 700 changes nothing. It codifies what is already so, putting Virginia on the same footing as the rest of the nation. (Josh Israel, of Virginia Partisans, points out that it actually does change something — it increases the number of state employees protected.)
None of this, it’s worth noting, provides any special rights for gay Virginians. It merely prohibits the Virginia government from refusing to hire somebody on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation. People are to be hired and fired on the basis of their qualifications. The fact that a man isn’t particularly manly or a woman has a close-cropped haircut has no bearing on their ability to do their job, and they should not be shown more or less preference as a consequence of that trait. This strikes me as quite a conservative position.
Still, it was clear to me that there would be fireworks. I knew I had to attend when I got an e-mail from the Family Policy Network today alerting me that if I didn’t take action immediately, something horrible would happen. My favorite example of the terrible fallout from SB 700 was being asked to “imagine a teacher with a photo of his or her homosexual partner on their desk.”
Think of the children! My God, won’t somebody think of the children!
For the first twenty minutes or so, the debate over the bill was surprisingly intelligent. Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-Clifton) was puzzled by the use of the term “expression” in the bill (eg: “actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity or expression”), and several senators were curious about what constitutes a “protected class” on a state and federal level.
Things started to go downhill a bit when Sen. Brandon Bell (R-Roanoke) expressed concern that, under this bill, a heterosexual employee couldn’t complain about having to work under a homosexual supervisor. But things took a turn for the positive when he boiled his question down to this: How is sexuality proved? Strictly speaking, the question doesn’t matter in the case of this bill (it addresses “actual or perceived” sexuality), but it’s an important consideration with a lot of anti-gay bills, most notably the now-former delegate Dick Black’s 2005 bill barring gay adoption. If Sen. Bell is cognizant of how silly it is to establish sexuality litmus tests, it’s a good sign for Republicans in Virginia.
Finally — concluding the civilized portion of the discussion — came Sen. Walter Stosch’s comment in which he pointed out, lest there be any doubt, that this bill does nothing more than convert the governors’ executive order into state legislation.
And then came Jack Knapp. My Lord, Jack Knapp.
Knapp has been the lobbyist for the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists for 26 years. Knapp, an old white man, speaks on behalf of causes that are lost for a reason. He thinks that government should regulate what sexual positions may be assumed by a husband and wife. He thinks that churches should be permitted to keep child abuse a secret. There’s a reason why he lobbies for the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists: these are churches whose interests aren’t within the mainstream, hence the “independent.”
So this gentleman stood up and explained his opposition. That was, quite simply, that “the activity is against the teaching of the word of God, and that settles it for us.” (“The activity” referring to gay sex, I assume. What that has to do with employment, I can’t imagine.) So being a sinner, in Knapp’s estimation, is sufficient to cast the first stone. And that was the extent of his justification for his objection.
Before he could sit, Sen. Benjamin Lambert (D-Richmond) had a question for him, and that’s when things took a turn for the theological. “God created all of us…on an equal basis…so how can you say what you just said?” Knapp responded that “I do not believe that God created anybody homosexually [sic], because that would be against what he taught in his work. […] He said that practice was a sin. […] Homosexuality is, I believe, a choice. […] I think God created us different races. I think God created different genders. But God did not create homosexuals.”
Sen. Yvonne Miller wouldn’t let him get away with that. Since God, she reasoned, is mostly composed of love, was Knapp’s answer a loving answer? Knapp got downright introspective then, explaining that love includes truth, and that God is a holy god, and that all of his traits emanate from his holiness.
So Miller, looking a little perturbed with the dodge, asked the big question: Since slavery is wholly supported by the Bible, why not support slavery, too? Knapp hemmed and hawed a bit before responding: “I don’t think, Senator Miller, that you were ever a slave.”
And thus ended Knapp’s grilling. The next fun part came with Linda Wall, of the Concerned Women for America. She gave a pretty standard anti-gay presentation about how this is a slippery slope, cited the Liberty Council‘s analysis of the legal matter as if it meant something, and then she dropped a little bomb.
“I used to be in homosexuality.”
Yes, she’s an ex-lesbian. (And by the looks of her haircut, she hasn’t given it up entirely.) She’s mended her ways — she’s healed, she can walk, ladies and gentlemen! — and now she’s concerned that we may “give men the right to use women’s restrooms” with this bill. The audience shifted uncomfortably at her revelation; I’m not sure many people were paying attention to what she was saying anymore.
Things wrapped up from there, with several senators giving brief comments about how they were going to cast their vote and why. I was feeling a little bummed at this point. Not because of the comments, but because, try as I might, I was totally unable to sympathize with the opponents of this bill. I like to think that I’m pretty good at understanding how other people think and at putting myself in their shoes. Sure, we might disagree about this, but it’s just a small thing, right? But I could not find any forgiveness for those people. Because it’s not a small thing to those affected. And if I can’t understand how people who are opposed to gay rights think, how will I ever convince any of them to change their minds?
I stopped worrying once Sen. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) spoke. He briefly explained that he’s totally opposed to homosexuality, to gay marriage, and to the stereotypical gay lifestyle. My back went up a bit. But, without breaking verbal stride, he said that he can’t see what in the world that has to do with basic human rights, or whether sexuality should be a basis for employment. He intended to vote for the bill despite his opinion of homosexuality, but because he can’t see what that has to do with getting a job. Yes, I thought. Here’s somebody I can disagree with and not dislike.
I’ll be honest: I think homosexuality is really gross. (Well, gay men are gross. Lesbians? That’s just hot.) I seriously can’t think about gay sex. There’s nothing about that I can support. But the thing is that it’s none of my damned business. At all. If two people of the same sex want to form a contract between themselves, that’s got nothing to do with me. And if somebody wants a job, whether they’re gay (or they seem gay) has nothing to do with whether they should be employed.
So I totally respect Sen. Houck’s position. He recognizes that his own opinion of what’s unsavory has got nothing to do with what makes for good public policy.
The bill went down on a near-party-line vote, 8-6-1.