Chris Graham: Marriage equality now the law of the land?

I remember the apprehension that I felt. It was 2005, and I had decided that Augusta Free Press was no longer going to remain silent on the marriage-equality issue.

gay-equalityI set out to interview several local gay and lesbian couples to share their stories. What they faced on a daily basis in terms of workplace issues, dealing with disapproving family, financial and medical considerations.

This took several weeks. Then came the day to push the button and go on the record supporting marriage equality in Virginia.

I fully expected at least a portion of our advertisers to bolt. This was 2005, again. We were a year away from seeing 57 percent of voters support a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. The 2006 electorate was the same one that also sent Democrat Jim Webb to the U.S. Senate over a once-popular Republican, george allen.

Virginia was a different state in 2005 than it is today. Today, the attorney general, a Democrat, Mark Herring, announced that he will not defend that 2006 constitutional amendment because it conflicts with his interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all citizens.

The governor, a Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, supports the move by Herring.

This in a state that until a couple of weeks ago had an attorney general who felt it necessary on his last day in office to issue nonbinding advisory opinions suggesting that the governor can’t order state officials to permit legally married gay couples to file joint Virginia tax returns because the state bans same-sex marriage and formal recognition of it and that the governor also lacks the authority to “issue a policy directive to suspend a regulation that was properly adopted pursuant to a statutory mandate” targeting intended protections for gay state employees.

No one could have even foreseen a Republican attorney general feeling compelled to write those words in 2005. No governor was thinking about permitting legally married gay couples to file joint tax returns in 2005; seriously, there is even such a thing as a legally married gay couple?

We were still arguing back then about whether or not there was a such thing as a “gay lifestyle” and if there was any truth to the then-radical notion that maybe, just maybe, gays and lesbians didn’t “choose” homosexuality, but were in fact biologically predisposed.

But I could see the cracks in the foundation of ignorance in the immediate aftermath of the AFP editorial stand. No advertisers bolted, as had been expected, and we were flooded with emails from readers, mostly Democrats, but some Republicans, praising us for the position that we took in support of marriage equality.

Our state has an interesting history with being slow to respond to social change. Virginia was the architect of the massive resistance movement that delayed the integration of public schools for years after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision became the law of the land. Then it was the interracial marriage ban that remained on the books here into the 1960s.

Virginia is hardly the leader of the pack in the area of marriage equality, but maybe we can be an interesting bellwether. Just as the state’s votes for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012 broke the Solid South politically, maybe today’s move by Attorney General Herring can ignite a wave of change in the South regarding the last remaining civil rights issue of our time.


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