Virginia Approves First Openly Gay District Court Judge in the South
Tracy Thorne-Begland was appointed to Richmond’s General District Court for a six-year term on Jan. 15, which made him the first openly gay man to be confirmed for a district court judgeship in the South.
Begland's approval increased diversity in the judicial arena and suggests that prejudice around sexual orientation could be breaking down in the South. Though the vote featured a walkout by a significant portion of the Republican caucus, the eventual tally was 28-0 in favor of Begland in the Senate, and 66-28 in the House.
“He’s a wonderful candidate, it was the right decision in confirming him,” said Kevin Clay, a spokesperson for Equality Virginia. “Virginia is not as conservative or in the dark ages as it once appeared.”
Begland was up for consideration in May 2012, but 26 House Republicans walked out, and ultimately voted 33-31 in his favor with 10 abstentions.
The debate surrounding Begland’s appointment hearing in May largely centered around his sexual orientation. In particular, it came to light that Begland referred to his relationship with his partner as a "marriage,"—a move viewed by some members of the House as an affront to the Virginia constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage. Some legislators expressed concern over a 1992 incident, during which Begland criticized the Navy's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on Nightline, for which he was honorably discharged.
This second time around, Begland’s hearing for the position was met with a less confrontational legislature.
“I want to thank the members of the General Assembly for their thoughtful deliberation concerning my nomination,” Begland said after Tuesday’s vote was finalized. “I look forward to continuing my service on behalf of this great commonwealth.”
Begland's approval comes during one of the most progressive periods in America’s gay rights history, with gay marriage being legally recognized in an increasing number of states.
However, Virginia is still one of 29 states that allows employers to fire workers based on their sexual orientation.
“It’s a slow process in changing minds and hearts,” Clay said, though he noted that the confirmation of Begland was “a step in the right direction.”
Jenn Nowicki is a reporter for Campus Progress.