by Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
During Bob McDonnell’s campaign for governor, his 1989 graduate thesis from Regent University made front-page news.  The young McDonnell’s writing illustrated, among other antiquated views, an intolerance of gay men and lesbians.  To lessen the potentially negative effects of the thesis on voters, he announced, promisingly but somewhat vaguely: “Like everybody, my views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older.”
So he asked Virginians to judge him based on his record as a legislator and attorney general, rather than on a paper he wrote decades earlier.
Perhaps the Governor is right—we should grade him based on his actions as an elected official, not as a callow graduate student. What then does his record show?
As a delegate in 2004 McDonnell was the chief sponsor of HJ 187, a resolution urging Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.  Then as attorney general, he supported a similar amendment to the Virginia Constitution.
In 2006,   when Governor Tim Kaine issued Executive Order No. 1, which included sexual orientation in the list of protected classes under the state’s non-discrimination policy, McDonnell, who was attorney general at the time, objected.  He quickly issued an advisory opinion stating that Kaine’s order was unconstitutional.
When McDonnell became governor in 2010, he re-issued his own Executive Order No. 1, except that he omitted sexual orientation from the list of protected classes.
But McDonnell seemed to have a change of heart after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli sent a letter to all the state universities saying it was against the law for them to have policies protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination.  Cuccinelli’s over-the-top legal advice led Governor McDonnell to issue an executive directive instructing state agencies not to engage in employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Many of us interpreted this as an important breakthrough for the governor on LGBT rights, and we hoped that it would represent the beginning of a more moderate position.
Now, though the Governor seems to be backtracking. Recently, the Virginia Board of Social Services was on the verge of prohibiting private adoption agencies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation when considering the fitness of adoptive parents when McDonnell stepped in and used his considerable weight to stop the proposal.
McDonnell has repeatedly stated that his administration’s policies are not anti-gay, but instead based on his interpretation of the law.  So far, though, except when he needed to position himself to the moderate side of the extremist views of his attorney general, he has mostly revealed that on the issue of gay and lesbian rights his stance has not changed much since 1989.
The final chapter of the McDonnell book on LGBT rights is a long way from being written.  We have seen on other issues --such as restoration of voting rights for felons, which he initially made more difficult then followed with impressive reforms to ease the process-- that he is capable of learning as he goes.  Still, his most recent actions, in which he went out of his way to oppose the reforms being made to Virginia’s adoption policies, seem to indicate that he is, at best, ambivalent on this important issue.