Northern Virginia’s support of gay marriage continues to outpace that of the Commonwealth, but the region’s stance on marriage equality is still bitterly divided
By Chase Johnson
In areas like Fauquier and Culpeper Counties, where population is sparse and conservative viewpoints are widespread, news of the creation of a gay rights organization spreads quickly. When the creator is a 16-year-old high school student, the novelty only grows.
When Tully Satre founded Equality Fauquier/Culpeper in June 2005, it was no surprise to him that people took notice.
“Going back and thinking about all the reactions we got, the people that would line up outside our meetings, the questions we would get from strangers on the street or people coming up to us in public venues, that was enough to tell us that we were very much needed in that area,” Satre recalls. “As I became more outspoken about it, I realized how much opposition there was to that conversation in Fauquier and Culpeper County. People were not open to talking about what they considered ‘the issue’ of homosexuality.”
Some people Satre encountered uttered offensive remarks as they threw his crumpled flyers back at him. Then-U.S. Sen. George Allen snidely ignored Satre’s question at a town hall meeting in 2006. In the fall of that year, the police told him to leave a neighborhood in Warrenton he was canvassing for violating an anti-solicitation ordinance, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling that found barring political canvassing unconstitutional.
Satre never let any of it faze him. For other members of Equality Fauquier/Culpeper, however, the overarching conservatism of Washington, D.C.’s outermost suburbs makes vocalizing their sexual orientation and advocating for gay rights an uncomfortable proposition.
“It’s been, honestly, like pulling teeth to get people to stay involved because I think they just see it as hopeless,” says current EFC chair Andrea Martens.
Meanwhile, roughly 50 miles to the northeast in Fairfax County, Equality Fairfax board member Jay Dick and his husband Chuck live comfortably in a neighborhood where keeping their lawn manicured matters more to their neighbors than their sexual orientation.
The new Old Dominion
It’s no secret that Northern Virginia is a political and cultural world apart from its neighbors to the south. The region has grown into a liberal bastion in a traditionally conservative state—a patch of blue that makes the rest of the Commonwealth blush even redder.
But, as Satre and Dick can attest, Northern Virginia’s ideology may not be as homogenously liberal as some suggest.
It is true that in 2006, Northern Virginia was the only region of Virginia to vote down the Marshall-Newman Amendment, which modified the Commonwealth’s constitution, barring gay marriage and civil unions in addition to declaring that same-sex marriages and unions performed in other states cannot be recognized in Virginia.
But opinion in the region is polarized. Northern Virginia Magazine had conversations with area residents and found that public opinion trended heavily on geography—the further from D.C. we went, the more opposition we found.
“Marriage has always been between a man and a woman,” George Ricks, 62 of Warrenton, states. “There’s never been a reason to change that.”
Most of the people we spoke to in counties like Fauquier and Culpeper held views similar to Ricks’, and many cited religion, family values and tradition as the basis for their opinion.
Closer to D.C., however, the prevailing opinion favored allowing gay marriage.
“All Marshall-Newman does is legalize discrimination,” 43-year-old Jim Hargrove of Arlington says. “I just hope that people will realize that before it becomes institutionalized.”
Although Northern Virginia did reject the amendment in 2006, the final margin was 52 to 48, a result uncharacteristic of the region’s typically liberal leanings. That same election, Democrat Jim Webb won Northern Virginia by a margin of 57 to 43 in his successful bid for the U.S. Senate.
There are a number of factors that likely played a role in the discrepancy. Perhaps the biggest, though, is that when people consider Northern Virginia, they often overlook the last counties of Greater Washington: Stafford, Fauquier, Culpeper and Rappahannock. They’re not as affluent, they’re largely rural and, most importantly, they’re conservative.
Voters in these areas have been known to align with moderate, populist Democratic candidates like Webb or former governor and current U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. But faced with an up-or-down vote on gay marriage, their traditional roots come on full display, a fact that EFC’s Martens attributes to the fact that it’s still such a new issue.
“What scares people about gay issues and gay marriage is that they just don’t think that they know any gay people, and so it’s a frightening unknown,” she says.
The Future in Virginia
Despite the deep divide between supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage in Northern Virginia, there does seem to be consensus that any change to Marshall-Newman isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Former director of Concerned Women for America of Virginia Patricia Phillips, who led the organization in 2006 and is still active in the region, was matter-of-fact in her confidence.
“It hasn’t kept me up at night,” she says.
Prince William and Manassas Family Alliance chairman Bob Allen was surprised gay marriage even came up for discussion.
“I would not seriously have believed 20 years ago that [we] would be having the very discussion that we’re having now, and that it would be a serious discussion,” he says.
Proponents of gay marriage are more optimistic about the possibility of a challenge.
“It may take some time—we know that—but I think that the community as a whole feels hopeful that we will make a change at some point,” Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance president Bess Kozlow says.
But supporters are divided about how to go about a challenge to Marshall-Newman—whether they should attempt to repeal the amendment entirely or work incrementally. Many advocates suggest that reversing the civil union ban first is the best route simply because a majority of Virginians supports it. According to public opinion data collected by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio in 2005, 59 percent of Virginians support civil unions.
“There are a lot of people that think it’s better to focus on things that are more directly achievable [like civil unions], rather than something that seems to inflame so many passions on the other side,” Martens says.
Any action on the amendment would require another amendment, an arduous legislative process. (A proposed amendment must be approved by both houses of the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions. Only then can it be put to voters on the ballot.)
But according to George Mason University professor and Almanac of Virginia Politics editor Toni Travis, the biggest hurdle facing gay marriage supporters is political, not procedural.
On its way to becoming part of the Virginia Constitution in fall 2006, the Marshall-Newman amendment passed the General Assembly by wide margins earlier that year and in 2005. Conservative Democrats, including former gubernatorial candidate Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), buoyed the effort with bipartisan support. Deeds later stated he felt the final wording went too far and that he voted against it in the voting booth. Whether he or other Democrats who supported the amendment would change their votes in a repeal effort is uncertain.
Travis suggests Democrats would also need to take control of both houses of the General Assembly, strengthening the momentum the party has built up since Warner was elected governor in 2001.
However, the GOP’s six-seat gain in the House of Delegates in 2009, coupled with Gov. Bob McDonnell’s landslide victory over Deeds, may be emblematic of a shift back to Virginia’s traditionally conservative roots.
In the face of the Democratic losses, there is concern among gay marriage supporters that McDonnell’s election could represent a major setback. But to others, including Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, who led the fight to defeat Marshall-Newman as director of the Commonwealth Coalition, the fight remains in the General Assembly.
“Nothing really changed,” she says of McDonnell’s election. “We don’t need the governor’s signature, and he can’t veto [a proposed amendment]. We need to pass it in the legislature, and we have to find a majority to do that, and that’s the same place we were before the election.”
Still others think that McDonnell will continue his campaign strategy of positioning himself as a moderate.
“If you take [McDonnell] at his word, there’s certainly been a lot of progress in his views,” David Lampo, vice president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia, explains. “His recent statements in support of non-discrimination, saying that the government should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, some of his decisions as attorney general, his open support of a couple of bills that expanded gay and lesbian rights, such as hospital visitation rights and the advanced medical registry that passed [last] year—his open and early support of those measures, I think, have certainly changed the perception of him.”
Knowing full well that repealing the amendment isn’t likely in the next few years, many marriage equality organizations in Northern Virginia have turned their sights to trying to improve the environment in the General Assembly. For example, The Virginia Partisans, an Arlington-based 501c(4) group, has endorsed and fundraised for LGBT-friendly, Democratic candidates both regionally and statewide since 1992.
Meanwhile, Lampo’s organization is focused on recruiting young Republican candidates to run for seats in Northern Virginia because their views on gay issues tend to be more liberal. It’s a strategy that flies in the face of what many see as a national resurgence among dyed-in-the-wool conservatives attempting to drive away libertarian factions in an effort to achieve ideological purity within the party.
Needless to say, Lampo’s visions for the GOP moving forward are more inclusive.
“They certainly represent the future of the Republican Party, and that’s what gives all of us a lot of hope that our party can get out of the clutches of the extreme right wing and become much more mainstream with these social issues,” Lampo says.
Another method employed by equality groups in Northern Virginia is bringing together candidates and voters so that they can discuss LGBT issues like gay marriage. Kozlow says AGLA held a forum last October that was attended by every candidate running for office in Arlington save one, and that the Log Cabin Republican strategy was on display.
“All candidates across the board, whether Republican, Green [or] Democrat, were all in favor of repealing Marshall-Newman,” Kozlow says. “Candidates who are running for office now recognize that that’s an issue that is important to our county, and where you stand on it is important to voters.”
Still, progress for gay marriage supporters is an uphill climb, and opponents remain confident that it’s too steep to overcome in Virginia.
“We’re certainly aware of at least the talk of an effort to actually rescind the amendment at some point in the future, although I think the environment is not remotely favorable to that,” says Brian Mazanec, director of the Fairfax Family Forum.
Ultimately, though, the goal of every equality organization is to cultivate the trend of increasing support for gay marriage, and they are unanimous in asserting that their best strategy is encouraging members of the LGBT community to meet and get to know their neighbors.
“That’s what we have to do, just live our lives,” Dick explains. “As more and more people come out, as more and more people realize that their friends or their family happen to be homosexual, people are going to realize, ‘Hey, that’s not a problem.’”
NoVA’s Current Stance
Last August, two Columbia University professors named Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips published a paper in the American Political Science Review that studied public opinion polling data on LGBT issues at the state level.
Using that work as a basis, they are now breaking the data down even further to look at public opinion more locally, using standardized geographic areas created by the U.S. Census Bureau called Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs). Using the demographic data accessed from each PUMA, their recent electoral histories and polling data from 1994 to the present, Lax and Phillips are extrapolating estimates for present-day support for gay marriage and civil unions at a local level (see accompanying charts).
They found that, of all the PUMAs that make up Northern Virginia, all but the three encompassing Stafford, Culpeper and Rappahannock exhibit greater support for gay marriage than the 37 percent of Virginians who favor it, indicating that Northern Virginia does seem to stand alone from the rest of the state.
What that means for gay marriage proponents is uncertain. Levels of support are mostly below 50 percent, but they are climbing. Public opinion polling has shown a steady increase in support for gay marriage the past 15 years, both at state and national levels. Proponents point to this as proof marriage equality is inevitable.
“We may have to take a step back every now and then, but we will always continue to go forward,” Dick says. “When you look into the polling of how people vote or how people think, you will see that the 18- to 39-year-olds especially have very little problem with it. It’s the 65-plusers that vote against it. We have time on our side.”
But opponents suggest that support is plateauing.
“I think a lot of people are growing weary of the debate,” Family Foundation of Virginia vice president Chris Freund says. “You might see polling here and there that shows a trend, but I don’t think it’s sustainable, I don’t think it’s going to last, and I just don’t think it’s reality.
“In Virginia, in the other 30 states that have passed [ballot initiatives banning gay marriage], even California, Americans are not at the point where they’re going to accept a redefinition of marriage.”
Freund’s point is a troubling reality for proponents; while a handful of states have legalized gay marriage in the courts or in the legislature, same-sex marriage has been voted down each time it has been set before voters to decide. Arizona did reject a broadly worded amendment seeking to ban gay marriage in 2006, but accepted a narrower version in 2008. And this past November, voters in Maine voted by referendum to veto legislation that legalized gay marriage.
But the news hasn’t been all bad for gay marriage supporters. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire have all legalized gay marriage in the past six years. Eleven other states perform civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Closer to home, the D.C. Council passed a law legalizing gay marriage last December. It was a move that some anticipated might send the issue before Congress in its role as overseer of District policy, but the House Committee on Oversight and Reform declined to hold a hearing.
Opponents of the D.C. measure petitioned to hold a referendum on gay marriage, but were rebuffed by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics on the grounds that the referendum violated the Human Rights Act. The petitioners have filed suit to overturn the board’s decision.
Ultimately, though, many feel the final word on gay marriage will not come at the ballot box.
“I think this issue is ultimately going to be settled at the federal level, whether we like it or not, which scares me because one of the things about the marriage amendment that I thought was a very healthy and positive thing was that the people could decide how we define marriage,” Mazanec says.
Satre, who moved to Chicago to attend college, says he doesn’t see the fight ending.
“I’m personally just not worried about where the gay rights movement is going in our country because it has moved so fast,” he says. “Progress is completely inevitable. It’s something that we’ve always said—this isn’t my own words, just something that has been very common throughout the gay rights movement—it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. And it’s true.”