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Is Virginia the New Mississippi?

Jim Burroway

August 8th, 2006

I mean no disrespect to residents of Mississippi. Or Virginia for that matter.

But there’s no denying that Ole’ Miss’s reputation was severely battered during the civil rights struggle of the 1950′s and 1960′s. The murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, was depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, and that movie’s title became a national shorthand to describe the poor reputation that had befallen that state.

I could just as easily have asked, “Is Virginia the New Alabama?” or, “Is Virginia the New Little Rock?” — anything to arrest the impulse to title this post with the overworked phrase, “Virginia Isn’t For Lovers.”

But two recent articles in the Washington Post led me to compare Virginia in 2006 to the Deep South in 1956. A couple of parallels are striking. It appears we are seeing examples of some rather frightening attacks against a hated minority, a minority whose rights are persistently and severely hampered by that state’s legal strictures. And we are seeing a migration of that minority to safer locales.

The parallels mostly end there, of course. Gays and lesbians are allowed to vote, enroll in college and drink from any water fountain they choose. Sexual orientation is excluded from their hate crime statutes, but thankfully there are no lynchings that I’m aware of. It’s unclear to me whether gay Virginians are protected from discrimination in employment and housing. But no matter the shortcomings there, the situation in Virginia is nothing like what African Americans faced a mere generation ago. Not even close. It would take a special kind of chutzpah to even try to equate the two.

No, there is no equivalency whatsoever between the two situations, but there are certainly some cautionary parallels.

The first article in the Washington Post detailed the recent vandalism to a gay couple’s home in Loudoun County, Virginia. Normally, when you think of vandalism, you are probably more likely to think of spray-painted graffiti, some broken windows, stuff like that. This, however, was much more severe:

It was early one recent Saturday morning when Heyward Drummond noticed that something was wrong. Still in his bathrobe, he shuffled down to the end of his driveway in Aldie to get the newspaper. That’s when he saw it. The word was written in looping white script on the driveway, on the mailbox, on a nearby fence: “FAG.”

Then Drummond smelled gas. Wide brown zigzags stained the lush green lawn where vandals had poured gasoline. Someone had pulled up dozens of boxwoods and chopped down Leyland cypress saplings that Drummond and his partner, John Ellis, had planted. Drummond couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

David Weintraub, president of Equality Loudoun, tied this incident to heightened tensions over that state’s proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage, a trend that others have noticed as well. (For more information on the link between the gay marriage debate and hate crimes, see our report, When Words Have Consequences.)

And that gasoline, by the way, was poured in a trail that led right up to the front door. What sort of message do you think that was meant to impart? Mr. Weintraub thinks it’s not difficult to decipher it at all:

“I think the intent of the message is ‘Get out!’ They’re hoping that we will shut up and get out and sell our homes,” Weintraub said.

And it appears that many gay and lesbian Virginians are acting on that message.

A second Washington Post article reports the rising trend of gays and lesbians in Virginia selling their homes and moving out of state:

Many gay people in Virginia and some family-law attorneys say they worry that the state law and proposed amendment are more far-reaching than simple bans on gay marriage — that the measures could threaten the legal viability of the contracts used by gay couples to share ownership of property and businesses.

The exact effects are unclear, and the 2004 law remains untested, but some gays say they fear the laws could affect their ability to own homes together; to draft powers of attorney, adoption papers or wills; or to arrange for hospital visitation or health surrogacy.

…Others say they want to avoid possible legal problems, particularly if they want to have kids. In 2002, for example, an Alexandria family court ruled that a father would lose custody of his son unless the father’s male partner, who had lived with them for five years, moved out. In 2004, a Winchester judge ruled that the female partner of a woman who had borne a child in 2004, whom the child had called “mama,” had no legal custody rights and that the woman who gave birth was the “sole parent.”

So gay Virginians are leaving, migrating from a place where they feel persecuted and unsafe, to where they know they can better protect themselves and their families — in a move that harkens back to the post-war Black migration from the Deep South. And considering how the states left behind by those African-Americans families were held back in so many ways — economically, politically and culturally — during the turmoil of the civil rights era, it’s appropriate to wonder what Virginia stands to loose in all this. Virginia is certainly losing more than a despised minority; it’s fast losing its reputation as a decent place for all of its citizens to live and work. Maybe Virginians should ask the people of Mississippi what the cost of that might be.

But hey, let’s look in the bright side. At least nobody burned a cross on Heyward Drummond and John Ellis’ lawn. To find that, you’ll have to go to Tennessee.

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