Occupational Hazard: Working for Virginia’s Government

By Brendan Maupin Wynn BrendanGood news: a federal appeals court upheld the ruling that strikes down the Virginia marriage equality ban, a case which will likely move onto the United States Supreme Court, a big success in the fight for marriage equality. President Obama this year asked us to remember that as we make progress in the courts, “our Nation becomes not only more accepting, but more equal as well.” Bad news: Even with the progress towards marriage, there are striking ways in which anti-gay discrimination is alive and well in Virginia, and where equality escapes court decisions. One example: if you are gay and you work for the state of Virginia, Virginia can discriminate against you. If your spouse is sick, Virginia agencies will not insure them—even though Virginia will insure the husbands and wives of your heterosexual coworkers. If you work for the state of Virginia and you are gay or lesbian (and in some cases if you are transgender), you cannot provide this benefit to your spouse like everyone else working for the Commonwealth can to their spouses. That’s discrimination. And it happens every day at Virginia’s state institutions. It’s not that our statewide officials want this to happen. In his very first executive order, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe reinstated a ban on workplace discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual  state employees, and – for the first time in Virginia’s history-  included transgender individuals as part of that executive order. The LGB discrimination ban was included under governors Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, but was notably absent from the executive order on workplace discrimination by former Governor Bob McDonnell. Governor McAuliffe reissued that ban in his executive order because it’s the right thing to do. But an executive order isn’t enough.  During my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I wrote a letter asking Attorney General Mark Herring for guidance on solving this problem. I issued that letter in June of 2014, during LGBT Pride Month. The project began when I learned that someone whom I respect a great deal suffers every day with the worry and fear that her partner isn’t getting the health coverage she needs as a diabetic. Her partner is going blind. The University cannot provide her with the reliable and affordable health coverage she needs. More than 75 students, faculty, and staff—including President Teresa Sullivan and her husband, law professor Douglas Laycock—signed onto the letter in support of the change.Because it’s the right thing to do. But if state institutions are instructed not to hold in equal regard the health of all Virginia employees and their families, the executive order is little more than an empty gesture. That’s why it’s so important to keep pushing this. President Sullivan can join in this fight, and that’s great. But her employees still have sick families. Attorney General Herring can issue a statement about the importance of equal rights, but his office hasn’t told a Virginia university ways it can make those rights real for employees. Federal contractors in Virginia now benefit from employment non-discrimination from President Obama’s executive order, and are eligible for benefits thanks to the Supreme Court striking down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act. Even military personnel in Virginia receive marriage recognition and partner benefits today. The military. But not state employees.Virginia’s Fortune 500 companies. But not state employees. That’s why my letter is pushing for these benefits, however we provide them. We could allow universities to use foundation money. We could finally accept the Other Qualified Adult plan pushed by Virginians like Bob Witeck and former William and Mary Rector Jeff Trammell, the same way Michigan did. We can find some way to stop waiting around while some Virginia families get sicker and sicker. But we can’t just wait for the courts while families find themselves in medical emergency after medical emergency. I can’t stand the thought of sick people not receiving adequate medical attention, just because a small powerful minority in Virginia is trying to block all Virginia families from getting the healthcare they need. I can’t stand the thought of people not getting adequate medical attention period. But if we can change this policy for this group of people who give their time to the Commonwealth that I love, and the school that I love, we should do it today. Because it’s the right thing to do. They can make a procedural argument about why these people have to suffer unfairly. They can make an ideological argument about why these people have to suffer unfairly. They can make any argument they want about why these people have to suffer unfairly. But here’s my argument: it is cowardly to refuse people appropriate, affordable, and reliable medical care, no matter the reason you choose to hide behind. Making this right takes courage. It takes the courage of LGBTQ Virginians. It takes the courage of University of Virginia faculty and administrators and leaders at other public institutions saying that enough is enough. It takes the courage of a Governor who stands up for those LGBTQ Virginians and who campaigned on a promise of equality and fairness. It takes the courage of an Attorney General who refuses to defend an unconstitutional and discriminatory marriage ban the majority of Virginians don’t support. It takes courage, but it has to be done, and it has to be done now. Because it’s the right thing to do. We all hope that the freedom to marry comes to Virginia soon.  But some of these families in need of health insurance don’t have that long to wait. This blog is part of Equality Virginia’s summer 2014 blog series on LGBT Virginians and access to insurance.  Learn more about Equality Virginia's work by signing up to receive our emails!  Another great way to stay in touch is by liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter.