Advocates for New LGBTQ Protections Meet in Harrisonburg

Jan 13, 2020

Grayson Sless (left) and husband David Lane spoke at Sunday's forum.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

A small crowd gathered at the Beth El Synagogue in Harrisonburg on Sunday afternoon to hear from three speakers about the need for statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.

The Virginia Values Coalition formed last year with one singular goal: to see the General Assembly pass a comprehensive law this year that would provide legal protections for the LGBTQ community. The legislation they support would prevent citizens in the Commonwealth from being fired, losing their housing, or being denied a business’s services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

James Parrish leads the Virginia Values Coalition.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

JAMES PARRISH: Most Virginians do not realize that gay and transgender people currently aren’t protected under the law.

James Parrish, formerly the director of the statewide advocacy organization Equality Virginia, now leads the Virginia Values Coalition, of which Equality Virginia is a member.

PARRISH: Yet, the majority of Virginians support those protections … we’re all working together to mobilize our advocates and our allies across the Commonwealth to pass the nondiscrimination law this year.

While the bill has support on both sides of the political aisle in Richmond, Parrish says that they have an even better chance of success with a majority-Democrat Assembly.

PARRISH: We have been working to pass a public employment or housing legislation for the past several years. The Republican-led Senate had been supporting that legislation, however, the leadership, including delegate Todd Gilbert, who represents parts of this area, stood in the way and would not allow us to even get a bill hearing for housing or public employment last year. With the new leadership … we have very high hopes and expectations of moving these nondiscrimination protections forward this year.

Another panelist, William Martin, is part of the Transgender Advocacy Speakers Bureau – one of Equalty Virginia’s programs that organizes transgender speakers to meet with faith communities, nonprofits, and businesses.

William Martin is part of the Transgender Advocacy Speakers Bureau.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

WILLIAM MARTIN: Speaking about my life, and what it’s like to be trans, and what kind of issues we face and then what kind of protections we need, and that we hope to get in place.

The forum was co-sponsored by Shenandoah Valley Equality, or SVE for short, a nonprofit that hosts events and gatherings to build community for LGBTQ locals. Panelist Grayson Sless helped found the group in 1995.

GRAYSON SLESS: We had a phone line, as SVE, and an answering machine. I don’t know if they still even have answering machines anymore, but – [audience laughter]

PARRISH: Or phone lines! [audience laughter]

SLESS: I remember that it would be checked about weekly, and about weekly, there were ongoing threats, informing us, also, some people were trying to convert us, informing us that Hell was awaiting us if we didn’t repent our sins. I mean, those were the kind of messages we got …

While a lot has changed in 25 years, there’s still work to be done.

SLESS: Up until now, we’ve been working and spending a lot of time locally or meeting with individuals, trying to make change in our communities. Which I think is occurring … however, having something in place for all employers all across the state would make a big difference …  I think also it makes Virginia look like a more attractive place for businesses, for employees, for people to live here to have these particular protections in place.

His husband, David Lane, knows first-hand how important these legal protections are. Lane taught high school literature and history in Augusta County for 30 years.

LANE: In those days, one could never be sure if you would have a job the next Monday if on Friday, word was passed around. It was a world of fear. And people hid, they concealed themselves, their lives.

With legal protections for LGBTQ folks to live and work without fear of discrimination, Lane says entire communities will have a coming-out experience.

LANE:  And now, what is happening, is that in Virginia as a whole, this segment of the population is going to feel like we are coming out, and we are hoping to be welcomed by everyone else, as just citizens like our neighbors.