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Richmond Times Dispatch: Equality Virginia, Democrats discuss bills to aid gay residents Print


Created:  Tuesday, January 20, 2015 11:45AM


Matthew Shurka was 16 when he realized he was gay. With his father's guidance, he began conversion therapy — a controversial form of treatment aimed at changing sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

For three years, Shurka was not allowed contact with females, including his mother and two sisters. He was forced into what his therapists called "healthy male bonding" and says he was subjected to heterosexual pornography. At 18, he was given Viagra to overcome anxiety during sex with women.

"This had devastating effects on me later on," Shurka, now 26, said in a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol.

With same-sex marriage pending before the U.S. Supreme Court for a nationwide resolution, Democratic lawmakers, gay rights groups and a few Republicans have joined forces this year to introduce more than 20 bills addressing discrimination and legal protections for gays and lesbians in Virginia — including legislation that would benefit teenagers like Shurka.

For the second consecutive year, Del. Patrick A. Hope, D-Arlington, has sponsored a measure that would prohibit conversion or reparative therapy on people younger than 18.

"There is no on-off switch to sexual orientation, and my bill is based on science that is clear evidence that conversion therapy does not work, and there is even some alarming evidence that it is also psychologically harmful," Hope said.

State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, one of two openly gay state legislators, told reporters that gay rights issues were "controversial" and "barely whispered about" when he arrived in Richmond 11 years ago.

"Now, the realities of 2015 must be addressed by the General Assembly and must be addressed now," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in October left standing a ruling by a Richmond appellate court that struck down the 2006 amendment to the state Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The ruling essentially legalized gay marriage in Virginia and several other states until the Supreme Court takes on the issue again during its current term.

"Even as Virginians continue to celebrate the freedom to marry, it is important to remember that LGBT Virginians are still discriminated against every day," said James Parrish, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Virginia.

Many of the gay rights measures have met resistance in the GOP-controlled legislature, indicating that Republicans are not interested in giving way to legislation riding on the coattails of the same-sex marriage ruling.

"I don't see the Republicans changing their opposition easily or soon," said Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-Arlington. "Unfortunately, I think we are going to continue to have to fight these battles."

However, some GOP lawmakers have softened on gay rights. "Times are changing; we should be more accepting," said Del. Ronald A. Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, who has introduced a workplace nondiscrimination bill that is pending before the House Committee on General Laws.

"We have proposed an agenda that would improve our public schools, support our veterans and make college more affordable," said Matt Moran, spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford. "The Democrats in Virginia have a political agenda, not a governing one," he said.

Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, has introduced legislation with a "conscience clause" under which someone subject to a state license could deny services to gay people on religious or moral grounds.

Another Marshall bill would prevent state agencies from requiring a contractor entering into a public contract "to agree to additional nondiscrimination provisions" that are not required under the Fair Employment Contracting Act or the Virginia Public Procurement Act.

Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, asserted in a statement Tuesday that with no answers for Virginia's struggling economy and budget deficit, "liberals in Richmond are instead fixated on legislation regarding sex and abortion."

"Their obsession with social issues won't distract anyone from the fact that they have no answers for the economic problems faced by working Virginians," Cobb said.