Lack Of LGBTQ Protections Has Some Young West Virginians Ready To Leave
Casey Johnson lives in Pittsburgh’s North Shore, a couple of blocks from one of the most colorful buildings in the nation, Randyland, a utopian-esque public art installation with walls, chairs, and trinkets in every possible shade and hue.
When apartment shopping in the Steel City, Johnson, who is pansexual, gender non-binary and uses non-gendered pronouns, searched to find a neighborhood that was the “most accepting.” North Shore, they said, fits the bill.
But if Johnson were ever to move back home to West Virginia, where they grew up, they know that acceptance isn’t certain and often a matter of where someone chooses to live.
Johnson was raised inside the city limits of Martinsburg, one of just over a dozen cities in the state to protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in housing and employment.
Their mother now lives outside city limits in Berkeley County, where no protections exist.
“If I were to move in next door to my mother, I can be evicted from an apartment because I'm queer,” said Johnson. “I could be fired from a job because I'm queer. And I'm not protected at the state level.”
Johnson wants to see lawmakers create statewide protections for LGBTQ West Virginians. A bill to do so has been introduced in the statehouse for the last two decades.
The most recent proposal — known as the Fairness Act — died in committee this year without a single vote. At the same time, state Republican lawmakers joined a half dozen other states and passed a transgender athletes ban.
“It hurts to come from a place where we preach how much we love people and how much we care about people, and then we don't see that in practice,” Johnson said.
This story is part of our series, “Plugging the Brain Drain” about young West Virginians deciding whether or not to leave the state.
After graduating from West Virginia University last year, Johnson moved to Pittsburgh for an entry-level software development job and said they don’t see themselves moving back home with the current lack of protections.
“The thought of living somewhere that I could raise kids who one day would turn out to be queer, and the place wouldn't accept them, you know, they wouldn't be able to get health care, they will be turned away from even like schools and things like that, that alone is enough reason to move away from a place for me,” Johnson said.
Advocates started this year’s legislative session with the hope that this would be the year the Fairness Act passed.
During a 2020 gubernatorial debate, Republican Gov. Jim Justice said he supported the legislation. That moment was heralded in October by former Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael as “a significant turning point in the political landscape of West Virginia as it relates to the LBGT community.”
When the state legislature convened in February, there was a noticeable lack of decisive change on the issue.
The Fairness Act didn’t make it onto the legislative calendar in the Republican-controlled statehouse.
However, the GOP lawmakers joined over 20 other states in considering a ban on transgender girls competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.
This proposal passed and became law.
“I’m going to sign it proudly because I really believe that that is the right thing to do,” Justice said just days before signing the ban into law.
This dichotomy of priorities rankled Democrats in the statehouse and sparked protests and outrage among some young West Virginians, a group more progressively-minded on social issues.
“I'm sure to have transgender students,” said David Laub, a WVU graduate student who is studying to be an English teacher. “And it's really frustrating to me, that I would have to sit by and just watch them not be able to do the things that they care about potentially in school — one of them being sports.”
He’s also a former high school athlete and said he doesn’t see the need to legislate whether or not transgender girls can play sports.
Laub acknowledged that he and his friends are all pretty liberal and among the minority in West Virginia, a state with Republican supermajorities in both the chambers of the legislature.
Political disagreements are a part of life but Laub said some of the legislation proposed this past year by Republican lawmakers went beyond politics.
“When it comes to matters of not being able to discuss systemic racism, and not being able to discuss sexism in the classroom, because they're divisive concepts, or not being allowed to strike to get a fair wage, or transgender students in my classes not being able to just play sports,” said Laub. “That's an eye-opener that is so far removed from my personal everyday reality.”
He went to WVU on a full-ride scholarship and said he owes everything in his professional life to the school and by extension the people of West Virginia.
Still, when he thinks about where he wants to live, it comes back to acceptance. David has close friends who are LGBTQ.
“I don't want to put them in a situation where they feel kind of threatened just for existing or unable to exist in an authentic way without fear of like employment discrimination or other kinds of discrimination,” Laub said.
Almost every Republican — and a few Democrats — in the statehouse voted for the transgender sports ban. However, support is not unanimous.
“I think that anytime lawmakers do something that is a hindrance for young people or hindrance for minorities, it really does turn people away,” said Del. Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, the lead sponsor of the Fairness Act this year and the only Republican delegate to vote against the transgender sports ban.
In the state Senate, several GOP members voted against the measure. Those who spoke said they agreed with the idea but feared the NCAA’s threat to move revenue-producing regional and national championships to other states without transgender sports bans.
“I don't think that my colleagues were motivated out of bigotry,” said Higginbotham. “I don't think they were motivated out of hatred. I think it was a lack of understanding. Most people, especially in the Republican Party, have not met an LGBT person. And I find that to be very disappointing.”
A 2017 national study from The Williams Institute found that West Virginia has the highest percentage of transgender teens with 1.04 percent. The national average is .73 percent.
Higginbotham was first elected to the statehouse in 2016 at the age of 19 and is now just 24. He said many of the people he went to high school with are in college, in jail, or have left the state.
“When I talk to a lot of the people who have left, they remind me that it's the culture,” Higginbotham said.
He said state lawmakers should do “everything we can” to deregulate and pass tax reforms that will attract businesses.
”But ultimately, if we don't change the image of our state, if we don't change the stereotypes...people aren't going to want to move here,” Higginbotham said. “And more young people will try to leave.”
When Generation Z and millennials become the largest voting bloc, Higginbotham said he expects a cultural shift in West Virginia and the nation.
A study last year from the Center for American Progress found that the 2024 election will likely be the first where these two younger generations outnumber the Baby Boomers.
He points to a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute released earlier this year that found — for the first time — half of Republicans support gay marriage.
“Ten years ago, that would have been an impossibility,” Higginbotham said. “And I think that as we replace some of the Baby Boomers, some of the greatest generation, we're gonna see these cultural changes.”