Republican Delegate and candidate for U.S. Senate Bob Marshall was one of the more vocal opponents to the judicial appointment of openly gay Richmond prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland earlier this month. (Photo credit: Marshall campaign)
Look, we understand that our beloved Virginia has long been one of America’s most schizophrenic states. This is, after all, the crazy little Commonwealth that helped elect Lyndon Johnson, the driving force behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the exact same year voters returned Senator Harry Byrd, Sr. (a powerful Democratic ex-governor who orchestrated “massive resistance” to school integration) and Representative Howard Smith (a recalcitrant racist and longtime civil rights obstructionist) to Congress.
Still, as we look back at the recently concluded (and incredibly fractious) General Assembly session, we cannot help but marvel at the growing divide between Virginia’s national and state-level political proclivities.
Consider this: During a week in which President Obama (who currently enjoys a solid polling lead over Mitt Romney in the Old Dominion) came out firmly in support of gay marriage, Virginia’s House of Delegates blocked the judicial appointment of Tracy Thorne-Begland, a decorated Navy fighter pilot and well-respected Richmond prosecutor who just happens to be openly gay.
While Republicans in both chambers attempted to excuse their bigoted behavior by citing Thorne-Begland’s decades-old challenge to the military’s (now defunct) “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, as well as his role as a gay rights advocate, they weren’t fooling anyone. And if any doubts remained about the true source of their objections, Delegate Bob Marshall—a U.S. Senate candidate and one of the prime movers behind the homophobic smear campaign (he kicked it off by labeling Thorne-Begland “an aggressive activist for the pro-homosexual agenda”)—soon made his anti-gay bias clear.
“Sodomy is not a civil right,” he insisted to CNN’s Brooke Baldwin. Pressed as to what sort of judicial activism Thorne-Begland might engage in, Marshall came up with a ludicrous scenario in which a gay judge might let his emotions influence his decision-making while adjudicating a “barroom fight between a homosexual and heterosexual.” (You could almost envision a tearful Bob Marshall on YouTube, screaming “Leave the gay-bashers alooooone!”)
He also repeatedly invoked the man’s domestic life, claiming that “he holds himself out as being married” (Thorne-Begland lives with his longtime partner, and they are raising two children together), and that since gay marriage isn’t legal in Virginia, “his life is a contradiction to the requirement of submission to the constitution.”
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. These are the same sorts of morally indefensible arguments that were made during the Jim Crow era to deny blacks the rights and privileges accorded to whites. In fact, when Gregory Swanson, the first black man to attend UVA’s Law School, first applied for admission in 1949, the Board of Visitors denied his application with disturbingly similar language: “The applicant is a colored man. The Constitution and the laws of the State of Virginia provide that white and colored shall not be taught in the same schools.”
This is bigotry, pure and simple, and the citizens of Virginia deserve better. With any luck, the six sitting judges of Richmond’s Circuit Court will grant Thorne-Begland an interim appointment to the bench, which would lead to another confirmation vote in front of the full Assembly. Perhaps by then, the small-mindedness and cowardice that marked this shameful episode will finally be replaced by courage and common sense.
But knowing this crew, we’re certainly not counting on it.