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Feeling Targeted, Unwelcome

At a gay and lesbian social gathering in Reston last week, many expressed outrage at General Assembly's "sexual apartheid."

Fifty years ago, Kelley Smith's family might have been discriminated against in Virginia because they are black. Today, Smith, a database manager living in Leesburg, said she is being discriminated against because she is a lesbian.

"We're not welcome in Virginia," she said. "It's like living in Alabama in 1947."

Smith and her partner of five years had been considering adopting a child, but believed they had little choice but to put their plans on hold because of legislation passed almost two months ago, banning not only same-sex unions in Virginia, but preventing any contract at all between same-sex couples that would duplicate the legal protections of marriage.

"They're basically saying that this is Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy," she said. "It's sexual apartheid is what is."

Last Thursday, at a weekly gay and lesbian social gathering at a Reston bar, Smith and others from the local gay community said they have felt targeted and unwelcome in Virginia since July 1, when the an amendment to the 1997 "Affirmation of Marriage Act" went into effect.

The amendment, House Bill 751, adds onto Virginia's same-sex marriage ban provisions that could disallow such things as medical directives and mutual wills, while also impacting child custody, property arrangements and joint bank accounts.

Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas), who was the amendment's chief sponsor, said HB 751 simply bolsters protections for the institution of marriage and does not infringe on rights currently afforded same-sex couples in Virginia.

But gay rights advocates said the wording of the law could easily be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

"The vagueness of this law leaves so much to interpretation," said Kelly Schlageter, spokeswoman of Equality Fairfax, a gay-rights organization. "We're getting the message that we are not welcome here."

AT LAST THURSDAY'S get together of the Dulles Triangles, a gay and lesbian social group, few people said they were directly affected by the new law because they are not currently in committed relationships.

But, several people said it sends the message that their lifestyle is considered immoral and, should they enter into a long-term relationship, not worth the legal protections granted to their heterosexual friends and neighbors.

"I don't understand what those who support the conservative agenda are so afraid of. I really don't," said Bruce, a Reston resident who declined to give his last name. "This is a message of hatred. It's hurting a lot of people."

Bryan Brown, president of the Dulles Triangles and a government contractor living in Herndon, said he is embarrassed that Virginia's legislature passed HB 751 during the same session it passed several resolutions apologizing for the state's segregated past.

"Myself, I'm embarrassed and ashamed of the blatant bigotry and disregard for the rights of all Virginians," he said. "At the same time Virginia is finally apologizing for its racist past, they are turning around and doing exactly the same thing to a whole new set of citizens who are different from the perceived norm."

JB, A GAY MAN living in Centreville, who also declined to give his full name, said the new law has given him pause because he works in real estate and, according to some interpretations, HB 751 prohibits real estate transactions between homosexuals, whether they are in a relationship or not.

"They're putting people in different classes. That's a shame. That's not what America is about," he said. "These times are really hard."

For Michael, who declined to provide his last name, a gay man from Ottawa who visited the Dulles Triangles gathering Thursday, said being in Virginia is a culture shock after living in Canada, where same-sex marriages are legal.

"It's quite surprising that there is this level of hatred in this state," Michael said.

MARSHALL said he suspects his amendment will withstand planned court challenges because it does not apply as broadly as critics suggest.

"It is very telling that the ACLU, Equality Virginia and the Log Cabin Republicans have not yet found a plaintiff to sue over my law," he said.

But as for Smith, she said the law has already had an impact and will continue to put a strain on her life and relationship with her partner until it is taken off the books.

"You've built a life with this person. You've built resources with this person," she said. "And all that's in jeopardy."