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Following Governor Bob McDonnell’s early February 2010 executive order removing protections for gay and lesbian state employees, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli contacted state colleges requesting they update their own anti-discrimination policies to omit sexual orientation and gender identity in line with the states policy.
On Feb 5th, 2010, Gov. McDonnell issued executive order number 6, a new state employee discrimination policy. It replaced Former Governor Tim Kaine’s Executive Order 1, issued in 2006. The new McDonnell policy was similar to Kaine’s, except for the omission of sexual orientation in the list of protected classes. The new executive order effectively abolished existing protections for gay and lesbian state employees.
Jay squires, President of the Gay Community Center of Richmond explained his group’s reaction to Executive Order 6.
“The reaction was sharp, and (we were) universally opposed to the governors actions. The governor went back on precedent set by his two predecessors who issued executive orders that recognized what matters in the work place is merit, not status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Those governors did the right thing.”
On March 5th, Attorney General 'Ken' Cuccinelli sent a letter to all public Virginia colleges. The letter said inquiries had been made about the authority of VA colleges to give protection to classes not listed in governor McDonnell’s executive order. He wrote, quoting here -
“It is my advice that the law and public policy of the Commonwealth of VA prohibit a college or university from including “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” “gender expression,” or like classification, as a protected class within its non-discrimination policy, absent specific authorization from the General Assembly.”
Virginia Tech and William and Mary responded quickly, saying they had no plans to change their policy.
Virginia Commonwealth University held forums, advised and assisted by the University Equity and Diversity Committee and the LGBT Subcommittee, to give students and teachers the chance to respond to Cuccinelli.
The turnout was overwhelming; several of the forums were standing room only. Njeri Jackson, special assistant for diversity in the office of the VCU Provost, said the forums were necessary.
“There was a real need to provide an opportunity to respond to those kind of concerns and to give the community an opportunity to register its response,” said Jackson. “We should have made it very clear that our policies remain in tact; that they have not been resented, and we will continue to respect and support the diversity of our student population. That the spirit of difference and community that is part of VCU is going to continue to be the case.”
In a particularly powerful speech, Professor Tarynn Witten, came out to the crowd of 200 as a female trans gender. After the forum, she explained why she felt the need to come out at this time, and so publicly.
“There are just so many levels of concern for this,” she said, “I felt it was critical for me to come out and speak. And that’s not something I normally do because I try to just be a researcher.”
Student groups at VCU were as interested in the letter from the attorney general as the general public. Student government groups, Queer Action, the LGBT Committee, SAVES, VOX, Men Against Violence, along with the Students for Possibilities, quickly organized an anti-discrimination rally. With over 1000 attendees, it was a great show of support for the school’s stance against the attorney general. Whitten was asked to speak before the crowd.
“If we can discriminate against GLBT, what’s next?” Witten said, “Should we stop teaching GLBT courses in class, there by further marginalizing these groups? Do we then stop teaching women’s studies because we want women barefoot and pregnant? Do we stop talking about clitorectomies, and murders of sexual and gender minorities? That’s abuse.”
The students in the crowd voiced their concerns. Will Patton is an English major at VCU. When asked why he came to the rally he said, “(I felt) a moral obligation to stand up against inequality.” Patton then called Cuccinelli a “bigot” in light of recent events.
Grace Albritton, another VCU student spoke quite plainly about Cuccinelli and his letter.
“We can’t let this douche bag oppress our student body,” Albritton said, “It’s just not right.”
Don Miller, an elderly Richmond resident, came to the rally to support the GLBT community as a concerned citizen. He expressed his issues with the Attorney General asserting power and dictating others morals.
“Number 1, It’s not his job to tell VCU what to do,” Miller said, “and VCU has the right to have his own policy. And number 2, what he wanted was the wrong thing, it’s like a throw back to the dark ages.”
The rally was over by 2 in the afternoon, and a portion of the crowd, over 150 people, headed on a march to the capital.
By 4:30 that day, McDonnell released Executive Directive 1. It said any discrimination, even that of sexual orientation, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution and therefore gays and lesbians were protected.
However, Virginia ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis said McDonnell’s response was nice, but it still leaves no law in the state of Virginia that directly lists gays, lesbians, bisexuals or trans genders as a class of protected citizens.
“There are 2 ways to look at this. The governor of VA, after purposefully leaving out gays and lesbians from his executive order has now said ‘I believe gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against.’” Said Willis, “on the other hand, what you really need is a law on the books that not only protects gay and lesbian employees of the state but also the private sector.”
GLBT rights groups, excited by the turn out from the recent rally, look forward to the veto session on April 21st as a chance to put forth new anti-discrimination legislation, though there are no final plans to date.