Members of the College of William and Mary community gathered at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law Wednesday to discuss the state of LGBT rights in the commonwealth of Virginia.
According to Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, legislative counsel of Equality Virginia, a gay rights advocacy group, Virginia has been slow to accept increased legal rights for LGBT residents. Despite a stronger push by advocacy groups for more legal recognition, including marriage and adoption rights, Virginia has followed national trends in rejecting these claims.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t much to talk about in terms of actual positive affirmation of the rights of LGBT people in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Gastanaga said.
Gastanaga said that such attitudes are present in state governments throughout the South. However, Gastanaga said that certain areas Virginia outpaced the rest of the region. However, given the large presence of non Virginia-born residents, such changes are often overlooked by the public.
“It’s hard for people to see victories, where they’ve been accomplished, or to see them in the context of a southern state,” Gastanaga said.
Virginia became one of the first southern states to loosen hospital visitation restrictions, allowing patients to determine who may visit them while they are receiving hospital care.
“For a southern state, we’ve been able to actually accomplish things,” Gastanaga said. “We lead the region in some fundamental things.”
Even with minor victories, the legal standings of most LGBT residents remain muddled, forcing same-sex couples to explore complex legal channels and processes to obtain rights similar to those of heterosexual citizens. According to Gastanaga, the wording of Virginia state statutes voids any contracts and agreements, such as wills and property divisions, that mention same-sex relationships. To expedite similar processes, Equality Virginia is working with other national groups to establish an advanced directives registry, which would allow easy access to necessary legal documents for same-sex couples.
According to Gastanaga, the main obstacle to equality for LGBT citizens is the recognition of same-sex relationships. With the current political climate in Virginia, Gastanaga said that gaining recognition for same-sex couples was extremely unlikely without significant legal action, potentially from the United States Supreme Court.
Despite numerous setbacks, Gastanaga said that the LGBT community has gained greater acceptance in Virginia. According to Gastanaga, 85 to 90 percent of Virginia voters support equal protection and anti-discrimination laws for LGBT residents.
“People shouldn’t be in a position where they live next door to somebody and worry about whether they’ll be received as good neighbors,” Gastanaga said. “We have to continue to look for opportunities to make a difference in a definite, different definition of victory.”