The City of Virginia Beach has become a flashpoint in the culture wars surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, highlighting the push-and-pull of individual cities, companies, and individuals as conservative states debate so-called bathroom bills.
On Wednesday the city was ground zero for Virginia's LGBT battles when two unrelated events caught national headlines: the appointment of the city's first LGBT liaison police officer, and a sign posted in front of a local pizza restaurant offering to help customers figure out which bathroom they should use. The sign was apparently in response to controversy over North Carolina bathroom bill known as HB2, which, in part, requires transgender people to use facilities that match their gender identity when in public schools and offices.
These incidents come at a time when Virginia's state legislature is wrestling over 10 new proposed bills the LGBT community considers push-back against the US Supreme Court's support of gay marriage.
"You cannot discriminate against someone if it's not a protected class," explains state Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R), the sponsor of the "Religious Freedom" Senate bill SB41, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Terry MacAuliffe (D) on the grounds that it stigmatized the LGBT community. "The LGBT community is not a protected class and therefore you cannot discriminate against them," Senator Carrico says.
A transgender Virginia teenager challenged that assumption in April. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of Gavin Grimm, stating that a bathroom policy that directs individuals on which gender-associated bathrooms to use violates Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in schools.
On Wednesday, the Virginia Beach Police Department announced that Sgt. Michele "Shelly" Meister will become the department's first liaison to the LGBT community. This liaison program is mirrored after a similar program that was introduced by the police department in Norfolk, Va., in 2015.
"The Department recognizes and values the importance of community outreach and the need to ensure that all of members of the community are treated with respect and dignity," according to a media statement issued by the department. "This liaison position will also serve as a resource for members of the LGBT community who are victims of violent crimes and crimes motivated by hate. Often times these crimes go unreported, resulting in a cycle of violence that sadly will continue unless effective intervention strategies can be brought to bear on the matter."
That same day a sign outside Windy City Pizza, which has since been changed, swept the Internet and a news cycle with its statement, "We have a men's room. We have a ladies room. If this confuses you, we can help!"
"[W]e are a restaurant with a strong sense of sarcasm," Mike Madsen, the Windy City Pizza owner, told the Monitor via Facebook message. "The sign was meant as nothing more than to get a chuckle from people passing by, never meant to a be soapbox to express" political views. "We have 2 private restrooms with 2 lovely toilets ... any customer is welcome to use which ever one they wish!"
To some, sarcasm is exactly what the issues surrounding LGBT civil rights do not need.
"His decision to use that issue to promote his restaurant feels incredibly insensitive to the many people fighting real discrimination in their daily lives based on their gender identify," says Michael Berlucchi, the president of Pride in Hampton Roads, Va., in an interview with the Monitor. He adds the community is looking forward to having someone inside the police department "who is able speak with confidence and expertise about the specialized needs and concerns of the LGBT community when important policies are being developed."
The culture war in Virginia shows no signs of letting up. Asked if he thinks Virginia is due for a bathroom bill of its own Senator Carrico responds, "I think all states are going to have to rise up to that occasion. By no means will I let my people go unrepresented who are outraged by this."
Carrico also reacted to the Obama administration's directive Friday that every public school provide transgender access – or face the loss of federal funds – with a directive of his own.
"I plan to fight it to the end if they plan to pursue this bathroom issue of allowing transgenders in," Carrico says. "I'll go one further. As a parent I will take my daughter out of school and home school her under religious exemption and I will encourage every parent to do it. And then the school systems will really see a devastation to their budgets because they won't have the enrollment to justify the funding."