Published: Sunday, February 21 2016
Written by Diversity Richmond
Equality Virginia Day of Action
As a social worker-in-training and intern here at Diversity Richmond, I visited the General Assembly for the first time through Equality Virginia’s Day of Action. I was blessed enough to have more experienced policy advocates to guide me in the right direction and to also be visiting during a time for celebration, as I witnessed the killing of HB 781 (the bathroom bill) and HB 385 (the discrimination bill). Though I considered it a relatively exciting and educational day, I still left the day asking myself, “What kind of legislative hell did I just go through?”
If you’ve never experienced the General Assembly while it is in session, let me explain. Walking into the General Assembly building was like walking into a beehive. Assistants, interns, and groups of civilian activists were running around in every direction on every floor. Representatives are around there too, but you most likely won’t see them. They’re like magicians, except they’re only good at disappearing, and you have to entertain them. On this day, however, we were lucky because the first delegate that we met with face-to-face was Delegate Roxann Robinson (R). She welcomed in our group, listened to our stories, and pledged to vote against HB 781. A promise which she kept – Thanks Roxann! Feeling a small success, our group continued on to another representative. We did not have as much luck with this one, however their aide was nice enough to listen, or at least pretend to. As a side note, I later found out that the delegate of my own district, a Republican, pulled a Houdini at the last minute when Equality Virginia’s group arrived. He came back a few minutes later, skipped over Equality Virginia’s group, and saw a group of students from University of Richmond instead – Young Republicans, I’m assuming.
Our next stop was in the Capital building to watch the Virginia Senate congregate. If you’ve never been in the Capital, it is certainly a site to see, whether you’re lobbying or just looking for some history. The building is a gorgeous piece of architecture that has managed to maintain its colonial aesthetic throughout the years – rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual men included! Again, the hallways were filled with people wondering up and down the stairs. We reached the Senate Gallery and were required to follow a strict set of rules in order to get in. Once past security, we waited for the meeting to commence. If you didn’t know this, right off the bat the Senate opens with a prayer. I didn’t know this at the time, so I turned to the youth sitting next to me and whispered, “WHAT!?” So much for separation of church and state... As the opening procedures continued, all the activist groups there that day were introduced: first, a group of doctors; second, a Lime’s Disease awareness group; and finally, our group. And we were a big group. We took up about a quarter of the balcony seating. We were so big that the Republicans immediately called recess after we were introduced (yes, before anything was even discussed). I like to think our presence scared them.
After lunch, I teamed up with a classmate of mine, and we went back to the General Assembly building. It was about 1:30pm, and a House of Representatives General Laws Committee was scheduled to start at 2:00pm. We headed over a little early to grab seats. 2:00pm came, and so did 2:30pm, and then 3:00pm, and finally people were pouring into the committee room. Apparently time at the General Assembly doesn’t actually exist. Once things kicked off I don’t know how to describe what I watched because I have no clue what I watched. The voting went by so quickly and the jargon and rituals were lost on me.
Towards the end of the session, the bills that Equality Virginia were focusing on came up for debate. HB 385 was the first up. This debate was relatively painless. Once it was killed, everyone from Equality Virginia applauded and cheered. We were told not to applaud again because apparently celebrations, like time, also don’t exist at the General Assembly. Finally, the big catch of the day, HB 781, was on deck. As soon as deliberation started, Delegate Cole, the creator of the bill, and his band of merry followers opened with arguments in support of the bill. Cole’s main argument for attempting to strip transgender people of their privacy and humanity was, ironically, to protect the privacy of people – cisgender people. Once they made their arguments, representatives from Equality Virginia stepped up. One of those representatives was a youth. He shared his experiences as a transgender student and explained how the bill would affect him if passed. His story must have created a major impact on the committee because the next thing I knew we were all pouring out into the hallways of the General Assembly, hugging, crying, and celebrating the killing of HB 781.
Even though I call my experience “a day of legislative hell”, I do not want to discourage anyone from attending the General Assembly while it is in session because even in hell, pieces of heaven can be found. Delegate Roxann Robinson (and others) who listened to our stories, the Representatives on the Committee that killed HB 385 and HB 781, and especially, all the dedicated advocates who were there for a fight are those pieces of heaven. They are the ones to thank for protecting the LGBTQ+ community from being pushed backwards for at least one more day.
Madison Woodroof is a VCU graduate and social work student who is serving her internship at Diversity Richmond.