West Virginia Rises to Protect LGBTQ Rights

With the highest percentage of teens who identify as transgender, the state is emerging as a national leader when it comes to protecting LGBTQ rights at the local level.
LGBTQ in West Virginia.jpg

A bipartisan poll shows that 60 percent of West Virginians support measures that protect queer and trans people.

Photo by FatCamera/Getty Images. 

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The national political scene in the United States took a sharp turn rightward in 2016, culminating in President Donald Trump’s election. But a recent trend among some local lawmakers shows that Trump’s views do not represent the views of those who live in states that voted for him, particularly in Appalachia.

A movement to pass ordinances that protect queer and trans people at the municipal level has been gaining traction—a recent Reuters analysis indicated that since the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in 2015, about 50 cities and towns in states that voted for Trump have adopted local measures to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.

Of those municipalities putting more protections in place, 11 of them are in West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia. And this year the Mountain State may be on track to join the 19 other states who have already adopted statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws.

“We all need each other to survive. We can’t really afford to discriminate against anybody.”

In 2016, five West Virginia cities adopted municipal non-discrimination measures.

“We just finished a year in which we doubled the number of ordinances in the state, and we were doing it at a more rapid pace than any other state in the country,” says Andrew Schneider, director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Fairness West Virginia. In early September 2017, the city of Fairmont passed a resolution with non-discrimination language, bringing the total to 11.

What is behind this rise and what can other states learn from West Virginia’s example? Schneider, who has been with the young organization since 2014, says the successes have been a function of appealing both to people’s sense of justice and to their hopes for economic prosperity.

Gay marriage took legal effect in West Virginia in October 2014, when then-Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced that the Attorney General’s office would not fight a lawsuit that challenged the state’s ban on same-sex unions. “I continue to encourage all West Virginians, regardless of their personal beliefs, to uphold our state’s tradition of treating one another with dignity and respect,” Tomblin said.

“In Appalachia, there is a culture of friendliness and warmth and generosity that exceeds any other place I’ve ever lived,” Schneider says. “It’s because our state is so rural and has faced so many economic obstacles. There’s a sense that we all need each other to survive. We can’t really afford to discriminate against anybody.”

Fairness West Virginia has been mobilizing other local communities for equality.

West Virginia has the highest percentage of teens who identify as transgender of any U.S. state and has emerged as a national leader when it comes to protecting the LGBTQ on the local level. A bipartisan poll shows that 60 percent of West Virginians support these measures.

“Not only is it the morally correct thing to do, it’s also good for generating business, and keeping talented young people in the community so they don’t leave for bigger cities with more diversity,” Schneider says. “An inclusive community makes a great place to raise your family.”

That’s in contrast to other communities, especially the state of North Carolina, where a statewide “bathroom bill” triggered massive public protests and boycotts by businesses, including by PayPal, which scrapped plans to build a new office in the state in response to the measure.

The first municipal nondiscrimination ordinance in West Virginia was the result of a campaign by the ACLU of West Virginia in 2007 in the capital, Charleston. Schneider was then the director of that ACLU office, and he said that it soon became clear to those working on the campaign that West Virginia needed an organization specifically dedicated to advancing LGBTQ rights. Fairness West Virginia has been mobilizing other local communities for equality since then, including Harpers Ferry and Huntington, which soon followed Charleston’s example in passing their own LGBTQ protections.

“We are trying to show that equality isn’t just about large urban centers with large LGBTQ populations.”

Usually local activists have contacted Fairness West Virginia for help organizing a campaign, but sometimes local politicians have not needed convincing and led the charge themselves. This was the case with Thurmond, West Virginia, which has a population of just five people and in 2015 became the smallest town in America with an LGBT nondiscrimination law. Sutton, a town of about 1,000, was the next to follow.

“The big message was just, from the smallest town to the biggest town, West Virginians believe in equality,” Tighe Bullock, a Thurmond council member, told The Washington Post.

“West Virginia is a collection of small towns,” Schneider says. “We don’t have any big cities here. We are trying to show that equality isn’t just about large urban centers with large LGBTQ populations.”

Other cities and towns followed suit, but the campaign in Lewisburg, a prosperous town of nearly 4,000 residents that was named “Coolest Small Town in America” in 2011, was the site of a bitter dispute on the road to the resolution’s passage in 2016.

“Lewisburg was the first place where the community opposition unveiled the transgender bathroom predator myth,” Schneider says, referring to a tactic that opponents of trans equality have used in other parts of the country to defeat similar nondiscrimination measures. It was part of the rationale given for North Carolina’s bathroom bill, and in Houston, Texas, opposition groups staged an intensive campaign to repeal the nondiscrimination ordinance already on the books.

“They did this because trans people are the least understood members of our community,” Schneider says. “It’s disgusting. But they needed something to replace other attacks that weren’t gaining any traction anymore, like the idea that gay relationships are immoral. Many people still don’t know a trans person, so it worked.”

Opponents of the nondiscrimination resolution in Lewisburg, mainly the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, borrowed this line of reasoning. Hundreds of signs went up all over town, imploring citizens to vote “no” on the resolution to “keep men out of women’s restrooms.”

“Everyone was talking about it,” Schneider says. “It was tearing the city apart.”

There is still some deep-seated resistance to full equality for queer and transgender West Virginians.

The Lewisburg City Council even considered delaying the vote on the resolution by six months to let tensions cool, but in the end, it proceeded on schedule. About 400 people showed up to the meeting, requiring it to be moved out of City Hall to the nearby West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. According to Schneider, a full detail of State Police at the meeting made supporters of the two opposing views use separate entrances and sit apart to keep the peace.

More than 40 speakers from the community took the podium, and it was 12:30 a.m. before the council members could weigh in. Ultimately, all seven council members voted unanimously to approve it.

As Lewisburg shows however, there is still some deep-seated resistance to full equality for queer and transgender West Virginians. On the heels of the victory in Lewisburg, Schneider and his team at Fairness decided to reach out to a city that they had previously considered too conservative to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance—Parkersburg, a city of about 30,000 residents on the state line with Ohio.

Unlike Lewisburg, Parkersburg is not considered prosperous. A third of its population has left since 1980, including most of the younger generation. The population that remains is older and poorer, and was more receptive to the Family Policy Council’s campaign.

Parkersburg seemed an important test for the push for a state law: if the ordinance could pass in a place this conservative, it could pass anywhere in the state.

The 2017 gamble failed, however. Though initially there was strong majority support on the city council, and anti-trans rhetoric and signs similar to what was experienced in Lewisburg eventually swayed the vote the other direction.

“As more communities get on board, Parkersburg is going to stick out like a sore thumb as a place standing strongly in favor of discrimination,” Schneider says. “They are the outlier and are unfortunately going to become more isolated by this decision.”

Despite this setback, Schneider remains optimistic. Plans are moving ahead in Morgantown to convert that city’s existing nondiscrimination resolution—a nonbinding statement of values—to a legal ordinance, an “important resolution to preserve the rights of those who are vulnerable so that they cannot be discriminated against in the future,” says Deputy Mayor Marti Shamberger.

Fairness West Virginia has continued to advocate for a state law. So far in 2017, no anti-gay bill has been introduced in West Virginia’s House of Representatives, which has never happened before, Schneider says.

So far, several state delegates, including Republican Charlotte Lane and Democrats Mike Pushkin and Barbara Fleischauer, have agreed to sponsor a bill that would extend protections statewide.

“I feel pretty confident,” Schneider says. “West Virginia is going to adopt justice before half the country.”

This story was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation. 

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