The promising transformation of social issues in NoVA

The Northern Virginia area of the greater Washington D.C. Metro has undergone quite a transformation over the past 10 years in economic development, social evolution and politics.

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Courtesy of (c) eyeidea/adobestock

The Northern Virginia area of the greater Washington D.C. Metro has undergone quite a transformation over the past 10 years in economic development, social evolution and politics.

Virginia as a state has significantly changed its political leanings. In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama won the state, the first time since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 that a Democrat was able to do that. Obama won the state again in 2012.

But Northern Virginia is leading the way to the future of the state, and that future leans young, educated and left.

Today there is only one Republican state senator out of 12 in the Virginia Assembly representing Northern Virginia districts, a region traditionally considered a Democratic stronghold and the source of much of the party’s money, according to report by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But that has not always been the case. In 2003, Republicans faced the fewest number of Democrat candidates since 1987 and ruled most of the state.

The U.S. census reports that 92 percent of residents in Fairfax County have a high school degree or higher—nearly 59 percent with a college degree. Of 1.1 million residents in Fairfax, there are nearly 250,000 between the ages of 20 and 34.

According to a demographic study by the University of Virginia, Northern Virginia has both the largest population among Virginia’s regions (nearly 3 million of the state’s total 8.3 million) and the fastest growth rate between 2010 and 2013 (5.9 percent). Nearly three-fifths of Virginia’s population growth since 2010 occurred in Northern Virginia.

Then there is the changing nature of the millennials who live in the greater metro D.C. area flooding Northern Virginia soon.

Millennials now in their mid-20s to early 30s are not buying cars because they are still paying off college debts and dealing with other money issues as a result of the 2008 economic downturn. They are using the rapid transit services more. The good news is that means the Metro can stay funded because it is heavily used by these young professionals and hasn’t needed government subsidies to survive so far.

The bad news is that millennials grow up. “Let’s fast forward about five years, when millennials have a 5- or 6-year-old child living downtown with them,” says Terry Clower, professor of public policy, government and international affairs at George Mason University and deputy director for GMU’s Center for Regional Analysis. “Walking to a pub or restaurant is not going to be as appealing with kids in tow. So this group will want to move out of the District. That is likely to further crunch housing opportunities in Northern Virginia.”

Through all of this economic and political jostling come the changes in social structure—some welcome, some not.

Over the past 10 years, homicides are down in the state, and suicides are up, according to the Virginia Violent Death Reporting System. While firearms were used in 70 percent of homicides, there’s little likelihood that Virginia gun laws will change. They are among the most lenient; no permit is needed for open carry of a handgun, for example.

Illegal drug deaths rose 70 percent from 2010 to 2011 in the state, with deaths from prescription drugs widely outnumbering other drugs, with just over 500 cases in 2011 from just under 200 in 1999, according to charts in the Office of Chief Medical Examiner report.

Illicit drug use has risen dramatically in Northern Virginia, with the biggest change in the use of prescription drugs and with drug deaths associated with prescription drugs killing more people than auto crashes in the state in 2013 and prompting more action by the governor, especially in Northern Virginia.

“The use of prescription drugs has become a problem because people don’t see them as a street drug,” psychiatrist Husam Alathari at Inova Comprehensive Addiction Treatment Services says. “They have the perception that since it’s a prescribed medication, it must be OK and safe to use.” He says people take these drugs for the euphoric effect then develop a dependency to the point where they have to keep taking them to avoid the consequences of withdrawal.

The rise of sometimes-homemade designer drugs is another issue facing the area, he says, where these drugs are traded from producers to users through social media.

“Some of those products are sold in stores and can avoid being investigated because they are labeled as experimental or not for human consumption,” he says. “By the time we realize that there is a problem with this product, the producers change the chemistry of it and come up with a new thing.”

One of the other changes in social issues over the past few years concerns sexual orientation and gender identity issues. Topping this change is same-sex marriage, recently made legal in all states but initially fought down to the wire in Virginia.

“Gradually over the decade, it’s been very interesting,” the Rev. Linda Peeples, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, says. She has presided over the marriage of 10 same-sex couples recently.

Peeples works with interfaith communities, including Baptists, Roman Catholics and others who have generally been thought of as conservative. “Their position of the LGBT issue is much the same as the pope’s, which is that they are not going to judge,” she says.

Part of the reason for that thinking is that they have gotten to know people in the community over the last few years, like firefighters and teachers who are bisexual, gay, lesbian or transgender.

Another reason is the exposure to different cultures in this area. “I think that because Arlington is such a pluralistic county, their attitudes are more progressive and more tolerant than I thought they actually would be,” she says. “Even religious conservatives, 10 years ago, would say, ‘Well my congregation doesn’t support LGBTs, but I feel people are people and we should treat each other with respect.’ They would have that much of an open mind.”

That exposure to a more pluralistic society is more pronounced inside the Beltway, she says, than further west in the state. “They can’t demonize once they’ve actually met that person or gone to church with that person or driven in a carpool with that person,” she says.

The road to complete acceptance is still a bumpy one. A policy to stop discrimination against any person regardless of sexual orientation at Fairfax County schools, the largest school district in Northern Virginia, struck a nerve with the community when it was updated to included transgender students. “The procedures are outlined much the same as they are for sexual orientation discrimination,” David Aponte, co-chair of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network NoVA, says. “But it’s a fairly reactive policy that doesn’t focus on remediation or mediation between people. It is more of a disciplinary procedure.”

He says that, overall, there has been a great change in acceptance in the schools. “It has come a long way in the last five or six years,” he says. “These new policies are being talked about, these issues are generating buzz, and the schools are trying to do the right thing.”

He says that the gender identity issue is seen by opponents as a part of the liberal agenda pushing a politically correct issue that doesn’t focus on the students. “But it’s definitely getting better in Virginia,” he says. “The differences you see today from years ago is that people had been coming from other parts of the state to protest, from the southern part, and were being driven by very anti-LGBT groups,” he says.

Peeples says that there is hope for the future of Arlington to continue to understand that the worth and dignity of every individual is honored. “That doesn’t depend on whether you are richer or poorer or born here or in another county and come to live here,” she says. “All diversities will be welcomed.”

 Key dates of social change: 

(c) Fisttolive/Adobestock


LGBT Issues
The District of Columbia added a provision for “gender identity and gender expression” in its Human Rights Act, explicitly prohibiting discrimination against gender-variant people including the District’s transgender community.

Jan. 11, 2014
Immediately following his inauguration, Gov. McAuliffe signs Executive Order No. 1, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity—a first for the state.

June 25, 2015
The Fairfax County School Board approves expanding the school system’s sex education curriculum to include teaching teenagers in grades seven through 10 about gender identity and transgender issues. The same board adds that same-sex marriage would not be part of their curriculum.

Same-Sex Marriage

Feb. 14, 2014
The 4th Circuit court found that the Virginia marriage laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional after new Attorney General Mark Herring refused to defend them.

Oct. 6, 2014
Same-sex marriage is legalized in Virginia when the Supreme Court refuses to take up a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that overturned the commonwealth’s ban.

June 26, 2015
The U.S. Supreme Court rules to allow same-sex marriage in every state.


Virginia repealed a law that had allowed counties in the state to require sellers of handguns to furnish the clerk of the circuit court with the name and address of the purchaser, the date of the purchase and the make and caliber of the weapon sold. The law had also required the county to impose a license tax up to $25 for handgun sellers.

The state enacted a law prohibiting local governments from conducting a gun buy-back program.

May 2015
Susan Newton creates a petition through
change.org to stop the opening of a gun store in Cherrydale, a suburb in Arlington County.

July 20, 2015
After nearly 3,000 sign the petition, the landlord of the building where a gun shop owner hoped to open another shop withdrew the lease.


In response to the increased abuse of prescription drugs, the Virginia Prescription Monitoring program becomes operational. Data is collected biweekly.

April 2014
A prescription drug ring that worked with suppliers throughout Northern Virginia to distribute over 20,000 oxycodone pills is busted by the FBI working with local county authorities.

Sept. 8, 2014
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring proposes new strategies for combating a surge in opiate overdoses, in which the number of deaths related to heroin in the state more than doubled from 2011 to 2013. In Northern Virginia during that time period, fatal heroin overdoses increased 163 percent.


( January 2016 )


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