In the 2018 legislative session, there were nine bills introduced that would have protected West Virginians from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Despite bipartisan support, hardly any of them made it to discussion in committee, and none passed a full chamber vote.
Two years later, legislative candidates on both sides of the aisle said it was time for such protections in West Virginia. Even Gov. Jim Justice, running for reelection, said he supported the move. Then, the election came and went, the GOP gained a supermajority and, as the 2021 session got underway, all of those promises wilted, despite a valiant effort from former Delegate Josh Higginbotham, R-Putnam. In fact, the Legislature went in the other direction, passing a transgender sports ban that the governor signed.
The basic component of most of these equality proposals is added language to the state anti-discrimination law that would include the LGBTQ community. The state’s Human Rights Act establishes statutory protection related to employment, public accommodations and real estate, regardless of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness or other disability. As West Virginia court cases involving alleged discrimination and possible hate crimes have shown, “sex” has consistently been determined to mean someone’s gender, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It’s mainly been up to West Virginia municipalities to add such protections to their city ordinances. The Legislature has, at times, tried to invalidate those ordinances, with legislators occasionally making national headlines for their crude words and deeds.
The mainstream argument against protecting everyone from discrimination is that it will lead to a plethora of lawsuits against businesses or somehow restrict a business owner’s freedom to refuse service to someone they dislike. The major flaw here is assuming that a majority of West Virginia business owners or organizational leaders are already actively discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. If that’s the case, the state has a much deeper problem, and it just shows how much these protections are needed.
As for the fear of lawsuits, where there is perceived discrimination, those cases are already being pursued. Look no further than the recent stories about Kristin Kingrey, a lesbian and member of the West Virginia Air National Guard, who claims she lost her civilian post because her superior officer didn’t like that Kingrey wore her hair short and wasn’t feminine enough. The lawsuit alleges the superior disparaged Kingrey’s sexual orientation and “perceived gender non-conformity.” How does that affect whether Kingery did her job? The situation is especially troubling if her claims are true that she was told funding for her job was lost, then the Guard reposted it and hired someone less qualified.
Although Kingrey’s case is in federal court, it is illustrative of the problem in West Virginia, which could be helped by expanding discrimination protections.
Protections against this type of thing are needed while West Virginia catches up with the 21st century. It’s bad enough that the state is consistently losing population and lacks opportunity for young talent, but actively shutting out a portion of the population because of fear and hatred makes the Mountain State even less welcoming.
As the 2022 session looms, the Legislature should realize the importance of equality and make a plan to add these protections, so that everyone in West Virginia can feel like there’s a place for them here.