Typically, it is moments of conflict and disagreement that stand out in political debates. That was the case during West Virginia’s Gubernatorial debate last week between incumbent Republican Governor Jim Justice and Democratic challenger Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango.
However, late in the debate there was an area of agreement worth noting. Both Justice and Salango said they supported the Fairness Act. That legislation would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to categories covered by the Human Rights Act and prohibit discrimination of the LGBTQ community in employment and housing.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo (R, Kanawha) introduced the bill last session. The co-sponsors included another Republican and six Democrats. The bill was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, but it died there. There simply was not enough support in the majority Republican caucus to move the bill.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, believes getting both candidates on the record increases the chances the Legislature will pass the Fairness Act.
“Each year, more and more lawmakers sign on to become sponsors of the Fairness Act,” Schneider said, “and I think this endorsement from both gubernatorial candidates could really push us over the finish line and finally pass in 2021.”
The makeup of the Legislature will change with this election. Democrats hope to flip the Senate, where Republicans now have a 20-14 advantage, and that would clearly change the dynamic.
The Republicans will likely maintain, or even expand, their majority in the House of Delegates where they have a 58-41 (and one independent) advantage. Republican leaders would most likely not want to take up the Fairness Act because it would split the caucus.
West Virginia is one of 27 states where there is no explicit statewide law protecting people from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Twenty-one states have specific protections, including the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia.
Attitudes toward homosexuality have changed dramatically in recent years. A nationwide Gallup poll released last year found that 63 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. In 2010, that number was only 44 percent.
In 2014, West Virginia stopped defending the state’s laws that denied same-sex couples the opportunity to marry, and later that year U.S. District Court Judge Robert Chambers ruled in McGee v. Cole that the state’s prohibition on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
So, there has been substantial progress. However, we still sometimes reference the “LGBTQ community” as though gays, lesbians and people who perceive themselves differently from their sex assigned at birth are somehow separate from everyone else.
They are not. They are members of our family, neighbors, co-workers, community leaders, teachers, professionals, skilled crafts people—they are West Virginians.
West Virginia tries mightily to encourage people to move here, to bring their skills and work ethic to our beautiful state to make it better economically and socially. But that welcome mat also needs to be extended to all West Virginians, regardless of who they love.
Governor Justice and Commissioner Salango took an important step last week in rolling out that welcome mat for all.