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LGBTQ Community Marks Progress in Virginia With PrideFest Honor for Gov. McAuliffe 

click to enlarge Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks after receiving an award at Virginia PrideFest 2017.

Brad Kutner

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks after receiving an award at Virginia PrideFest 2017.

Despite how you’d imagine an Irish Catholic upbringing might influence Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s views on LGBTQ individuals, the outgoing governor says he was always taught to respect other people’s individual rights. He came through on those beliefs when he first took office four years ago, and he did it again on Saturday as he spoke before the large crowd at Brown’s Island for Virginia Pride’s 2017 PrideFest.

“Virginia is a different state today. We’re more welcome,” he said after receiving the Firework Award, given annually by Virginia Pride to leaders who help fight for LGBTQ equality in Virginia. “We’re open to everyone … We are a place to have a great time, we are for LOVERS!”

McAuliffe, in the final months of his four-year term, has left a mark on the state’s LGBTQ population. In 2014, his first year in office, he became the first sitting Virginia governor to attend the state’s largest LGBTQ festival in Richmond. He also made history that year by proclaiming June LGBTQ Pride Month across the state, another first for a Virginia governor. He has since returned every June to release a similar proclamation and every September to take the PrideFest stage.

“I have many close friends who are gay, but to me it’s a human rights issue, it’s a civil rights issue,” he told Style as he walked from the PrideFest stage through the diverse crowd, shaking hands and helping people find the perfect lighting for their selfies. “Everybody deserves to live life with zero discrimination.”

That devotion to equality is a goal to which McAuliffe has stayed true. While he’s used executive orders to offer protections for LGBTQ state employees — and required all state contractors to include similar nondiscrimination clauses in their work force — he’s also become the governor with the highest number of vetoes in Virginia’s history, a milestone he touted from the PrideFest stage.

From laws that would change access to women’s health, so-called “bathroom bills” that could limit bathroom for transgender Virginians, and even laws that he and advocates believe limit access to the ballot box, McAuliffe has struck down 97 bills. The two vetoes that took him over former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore’s record of 90 were bills that would have protected religious groups if they chose to discriminate against LGBTQs.

As McAuliffe left the event, he let out a warning for those who have gained freedoms and gotten comfortable under his tenure:

“This could go away in a second,” he said. “If I wasn’t governor, the bills would be law today. Go out and vote Nov. 7th for Ralph Northam.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was not in attendance for today’s events, but he has long been clear about his support for LGBTQ rights since before he started this campaign. Both Northam and current Attorney General Mark Herring, who is running for re-election, were among the Virginia state senators who helped enshrine the commonwealth’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage. Both, through words and actions, have since changed their tune — Herring helped reverse the marriage ban by refusing to defend it in 2014 while Northam has promised to continue McAuliffe’s LGBTQ executive orders if elected into office.

The Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie, was also not present at today’s festivities. His campaign has expressed support for having transgender students use the restroom aligned with their birth gender, against the judgment of the American Medical Association and advocates.

The GOP’s candidate for attorney general, John Adams, also was absent today. Adams has condemned his opponent for not defending Virginia’s 2006, voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The fight ended with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturning the law with help from Herring as attorney general and LGBTQ advocates.

Another absent member of the GOP’s big three was Northern Virginia state Sen. Jill Vogel. Vogel has expressed support for same-sex marriage in the wake of legalization but decried the Obama administration’s transgender-affirming policy for student’s bathroom use as “heavy handed” federal intervention.

A Virginia School board’s ban on trans students using their preferred restroom was headed to the Supreme Court earlier this year until the Trump Administration rescinded Obama-era guidelines, which altered the nature of the case.

Virginia voters go to the polls Nov. 7.

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