While people rallied Thursday for the rights of LGBTQ people just outside the West Virginia Senate, that chamber’s president, Mitch Carmichael, said he is “leaning no” in his personal consideration of the West Virginia Fairness Act.
As “All Kinds Welcome Here Day” wound down at the Capitol, Carmichael said West Virginia is open and inclusive, but he is hesitant to enact any law that he said might be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, referring to discriminating actions against LGBTQ people.
“We want to communicate that any action or nonaction on this bill — if there’s no action on the bill, that doesn’t mean we’re in any way discriminatory,” Carmichael said. “We just believe — is there a problem that exists in society? Is this occurring, the discrimination?”
The Fairness Act, technically known as Senate Bill 270, has lingered among the abundance of bills before the Senate Judiciary Committee since it was introduced by Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, on Jan 10. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship.
All Kinds Welcome Here Day included rallying speeches from groups advocating for civil rights based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status and economic status.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, was among those who addressed the crowd.
He asked lawmakers to “live up to the value that ‘Mountaineers are always free.’ ”
“[The Fairness Act] is a solution to a problem that has been tested already in 20 states and 12 municipalities in West Virginia,” Schneider said. “We know it works because more than 100 pastors and other faith leaders have endorsed the bill. They wouldn’t endorse a bill that posed a threat to any religious freedoms.”
A study released in January 2017 showed West Virginia had the highest rate of transgender teenagers per capita in the United States.
Earlier this month, Schneider said West Virginia isn’t a top state per capita among transgender adults, saying that’s an indication that either transgender West Virginians are leaving the state or are living secret lives to avoid scrutiny and discrimination.
Carmichael has considered the Fairness Act leading up to and during the start of the session. He has engaged with religious leaders who are against the bill and community and religious leaders in favor of it during the first couple of weeks of the legislative session without taking a firm stance on the bill. The legislation, if it became law, would prevent businesses and landlords from firing someone or kicking them out of a rental property based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Carmichael said passing the law would create “public accommodations issues” for people who provide housing and employment.
“If there’s something occurring that someone’s being discriminated against, fired from their job because of their sexual orientation or denied housing, then there should be a lawsuit about it,” Carmichael said. “But if it’s just a talking point we want to put forth in West Virginia — we don’t want to do that just for appearances. We want substantive legislation.”
As the lead sponsor of the Fairness Act, Takubo said Thursday that the national perspective of West Virginians being closed minded is exactly the reason the state needs the Fairness Act.
“I believe, fundamentally, when you get a lot of people down on a one-on-one basis, they agree with it, but as a whole, people get scared that we may be in some way harming or in some way affecting the values of West Virginians,” Takubo said. “I would argue it’s actually going to be the opposite. It’ll promote the way most West Virginians feel.”
For Ally Layman, the law would do more than change perspectives — it would help her be able to live.
Layman grew up in Huntington, where she still lives and works as a bartender, and she organized the first-ever Huntington Pride Festival last year while she and her wife planned their wedding.
Layman said all she is asking for is to be treated just like anyone else. Instead, she said, she once was fired for not being “girly enough” and also had fears while planning her wedding that she would be denied service for being in a same-sex relationship.
When she hears lawmakers question whether discrimination happens, she said, it’s hard to prove discrimination happens without the means to get it on the record in court.
“I would ask people to walk a day in our shoes,” Layman said. “We have people who protest us, and I have been screamed at and called names, and I’ve stood and not said anything. It’s fine for people to have a difference of opinion, but all we’re asking for is to be treated just as everybody else. Let me live.”
Natasha Stone grew up in Dunbar and now works as an organizer with Fairness West Virginia. Without state law to protect them, she said, people who live outside the 12 West Virginia communities that have protections for LGBTQ people have to be careful about how they engage with their co-workers, over fear that their actions might be misinterpreted.
Stone said she is glad Carmichael is listening, but she said the time for lawmakers to take action is overdue.
“I don’t know if there’s time for that right now,” Stone said. “I think Mitch Carmichael does want to do the right thing, but he does want to hear both sides. I understand that. Our side is really passionate that our side is here to fight for this, and we just want to be heard.”