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Migrating out of legally gay-hostile Virginia

Monday, August 07, 2006

"As an African-American, having grown up during the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Ala., I am not willing to have my rights taken away from me by ignorant, religious zealots who don't respect the constitutional understanding of separation of Church and State when scripting laws...It was apparent to me that things weren't getting any better, but worse. Why should I continue to pay taxes to support such a hateful government?"
-- Emmanuel Vaughan, who moved from Arlington, VA to DC with his partner, because of the state's anti-gay legal environment
This should surprise no one; why should gay and lesbian taxpayers live in a state that not only refuses to recognize their relationships, but seeks to place gay families in legal jeopardy because of bigotry?

Virginia, which has an upcoming vote in November on a constitutional amendment to bar gays and lesbians from marrying, if passed will ban civil unions, partnerships or any legal status approximating the rights conveyed with marriage. Gays are now moving to DC, Maryland or Delaware, leaving the legal bigotry behind. (WaPo):
Many gay people in Virginia and some family-law attorneys say they worry that the state law and proposed amendment are more far-reaching than simple bans on gay marriage -- that the measures could threaten the legal viability of the contracts used by gay couples to share ownership of property and businesses.

The exact effects are unclear, and the 2004 law remains untested, but gays fear the laws could affect their ability to own homes together; to draft powers of attorney, adoption papers or wills; or to arrange for hospital visitation or health surrogacy.

Married people get these rights automatically through long-established common law; gay people use legal documents to ensure they can leave their property at death to their partner or allow their partner, rather than the patient's birth family, to make end-of-life decisions for them. Some gay people worry that hostile family members could use the language in the laws to seize their possessions or take custody of their children if they could prove the couple had a relationship that illegally approximated a marriage.
The WaPo spoke with two dozen gay people who decided to move out of the state, with ten others who will decide whether to leave after the results of November vote. Trust me, there will be an exodus of many more if this amendment passes.

What really galls me in this article is the completely disingenuous statements coming out of the bible-beating set. It's unreal. They know the legal hurdles that they are placing in the way of gay relationships in Virginia, yet find it sad that gays are leaving the state.
Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation, the Richmond-based group that backed the 2004 law and the proposed constitutional amendment, said the goal isn't to drive gay people out. She said "extreme homosexual organizations" might be trying to frighten their members by circulating false information about the amendment. She said it wouldn't add new restrictions on gays but would simply underscore the ways their relationships are already restricted.

"I think it's extremely sad they would leave because of something they were never allowed to do anyway," said Cobb, who said she believed gays could go to court to defend themselves if a partner's family members challenged their right to own property in common, arrange powers of attorney or visit each other in the hospital.
Gays could go to court. Yes, Virginia, you, from the privileged position of heterosupremacy, have a hell of a lot of nerve, since you don't have to file a lawsuit to receive any of the rights you can obtain by going down and obtaining a marriage license. You don't have to worry about hostile parents interfering with custody or property rights of their children because the bible tells them homosexuality is wrong. Jeezus, I think that I'm going to be ill.

It's not hard to believe that many straight people are not aware of what is at stake with the marriage amendment vote coming up in November, but there are also gay folks out there who have no clue about what legal challenges await them in Virginia.
Art director Beth Lower and her partner, Kati Towle, owned a home in Arlington but didn't know about the Virginia laws until they went to a lawyer to draw up a will and adoption paperwork for Lower after Towle became pregnant. "The lawyer said, 'Don't have that baby in Virginia,' " recalled Lower, who works for a trade association. "We weren't really into Virginia politics, so we didn't really know about any laws that might be working against us."

Towle, a school teacher in Alexandria, delivered the baby at George Washington University Hospital in the District, and the three moved to Silver Spring.
That couple is not alone. You might recall that Mary Cheney, who lives in the state with her partner Heather Poe, was clueless about the matter as well. From a Larry King interview while shilling her sorry-ass book:
KING: On domestics -- what's the rule -- what's the law in Virginia?

CHENEY: Actually I'm not sure what the law is in Virginia. I should know that.

KING: Does your partner have -- if you're in the hospital, god forbid, does your partner have rights?

CHENEY: My partner and I have living wills, regular wills, powers of attorney, everything that quite honestly any couple married or not should have.
Yeah, Mary, and all that paperwork will be subject to legal challenge for all those couples who can afford to obtain them. What about your fellow Commonwealth residents who aren't in a position to draw up those legally vulnerable documents?

Clearly, this exodus -- a gay brain-drain -- from states with marriage amendments is a powerful message to send. Companies and institutions that support civil equality measures will think twice before doing business with a state that makes second-class citizens of its LGBT taxpaying residents.

There are two schools of thought about the migration -- should gays stay and fight where the legal deck is stacked against them, or leave for more gay-friendly pastures? David Lampo, VP of the Log Cabin Republican Club of Virginia in the article muses that gay flight would hand a victory over to the anti-gay forces in the state.

I say, so what? Any state that puts discrimination on the ballot needs to "pay" for taking such a position. There's no way that a gay couple, especially one with children, needs to stay and be subjected to this kind of institutionalized legal BS. There's no way that an amendment, if passed, will be overturned any time soon, and that's the tragedy of the states that have "gone all the way," passing amendments with negligible support for opposition efforts from elected officials and national gay orgs, particularly in Red states. Endless court battles now lie ahead; not everyone is willing or able to deal with a protracted legal fight in their state for the most basic of rights.

In a deep Red state, there's only so much open hostility one can take, never mind outright danger. For those in Purple states (Red states with Blue enclaves) our interests in the long run are better served if gay folks stay and reclaim them by coming out, getting politically active and protecting their interests. But that's a lot to ask once the door is effectively shut with an amendment.

Perhaps the wingnut forces will be defeated someday in these states (realistically, change at this point will require a SCOTUS decision overturning the amendments), but the best medicine for now may be for Virginia -- and states that have passed these hate amendments -- to see what the economic price is for letting the people decide who is entitled to civil rights.

If "letting the states decide" is the stated position of both political parties regarding these matters, it needs to be clear that gay citizens, gay friendly businesses and allies will vote with their feet and their wallets as well.

Hat tip, Holly.

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UPDATE: A commenter mentioned the fact that NC is on of the few remaining Southern states without a marriage amendment and asked whether this is "because (1) Tar Heels are more enlightened than their neighbors? Or is it because (2) Democrats control the North Carolina legislature, and won't give Republicans a chance to use this form of bigotry to get out their base voters?"

The biggest issue is that Democrats control the North Carolina legislature. There are plenty of wingnuts here, and if it went to a ballot, an amendment would pass. The General Assembly keeps bottling the bills in committee.

That said, many of the pols here are pragmatists and pro-business, and many of the companies based in RTP and in larger areas (Greensboro, Charlotte) have gay-affirming policies. Durham and Orange counties (as well as the city of Durham and towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro) provide domestic partner benefits; Greensboro is mulling it.

There are many factors like this that would make it very politically explosive if a bill managed to make it to the floor for debate because of the economic ramifications.

The State of NC naturally doesn't recognize same-sex relationships or protect the rights of LGBT citizens (see here), though UNC carefully treads water with its non-discrimination policy (the state schools are governed as a separate entity), but it has this important footnote: "The University’s policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation does not apply to the University’s relationships with outside organizations, including the federal government, the military, ROTC, and private employers."

In case you're wondering about other area universities and non-discrimination policies, NC State's includes transsexuals and Duke has a strong non-discrimination policy and provides full same-sex spousal equivalent benefits.

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Another aside, one that reminded me why getting straight allies on board in this fight is going to take some work...

I recently had a conversation at one of the functions surrounding my brother's wedding with a progressive friend of my now-sister-in-law's family. Kate and I were floored, after telling her that we went to Canada to get married, when she asked us why we couldn't get legally married here in the States (remember, out of staters cannot marry in Mass.). She honestly thought we were in the clear to marry and have fully equality (even at the fed level, which doesn't apply with a Mass. marriage license either).

Since the straight folks I'm around here in NC are generally in touch with the issue, it was a big reminder that a huge portion our potential allies around the country are undereducated about this issue in a distressing way. A significant awareness campaign targeting straight allies is critical to garnering enough support to turn this ship around.

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Here's a must-read piece that dovetails with this discussion quite well: Terrance's "What Rights Should Same-Sex Couples Have?" Since we're acquiring our rights piecemeal (or being outright denied them), it's an interesting exercise to think about what constitutes civil equality, and whether we, as gay taxpaying citizens, can or should "settle" for something less.