When Donna Henshaw votes for Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis on Nov. 6, it will be the first time the 51-year-old has ever voted for a Republican.
"I am fundamentally a Democrat and normally I think you need to vote the party ticket," said Henshaw, who lives in Vienna and came out as a lesbian at the age of 40.
Neither Devolites Davis nor her Democratic opponent Chap Petersen personally supports gay marriage and they have expressed few discernable differences on their positions on gay rights. But Henshaw said she is impressed by Devolites Davis' change of heart when it comes to gay issues.
"She has grown tremendously and her stance has changed dramatically," said Henshaw, who attended a candidates’ forum on gay issues sponsored by Equality Fairfax Sept. 27.
The Vienna resident said she was not comfortable with Petersen.
She said she was particularly troubled by the Democrat's membership in the Truro Church. The City of Fairfax congregation voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to split from The Episcopal Church, citing concerns about the cultural adaptability the U.S. church has had to such issues as abortion and homosexuality.
"I don't trust Chap and his religious beliefs," said Henshaw.
FOR GAY RIGHTS activists, Devolites Davis and Petersen do not present an easy choice.
Both candidates said they would support and carry legislation to expand gay rights — including bills that would allow both members of a same sex couple to be legal guardians to their children or a gay person's to cover their partner under their health insurance plan.
Devolites Davis introduced and was the only Republican in the Senate to support legislation to include sexual orientation as one of the protected classes in the state employee's non-discrimination policy. Petersen said he would do that same if elected.
Yet both candidates said during the forum that they personally believe marriage should only between a man and a woman.
"We disagree on a couple of issues," said Devolites Davis, to audience members attending the forum at the Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia in the City of Fairfax.
The senator, a Roman Catholic, voted for the marriage amendment but said she did not actively campaign for or against the measure. According to Petersen, she was one of the original sponsors of the bill.
Petersen personally does not believe in gay marriage and, as a candidate for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary, told several news outlets that he did not support civil unions. But the Democrat, who lost his bid for statewide office in the primary, did not vote for the gay marriage amendment in the general election because he decided it was "gratuitous," he said.
Though not written into the commonwealth's constitution, Virginia already has enacted laws that defined marriage as a union between a man and woman and prohibited the local government from recognizing civil unions.
"I am a Christian and someone that believes in sin. ... I don't try to impose my views on everybody," said Petersen, who added that he was baptized in Truro Church. Petersen said he did not think his religious community should be factor in a discussion of gay rights.
BOTH CANDIDATES may lean right of their constituents on gay issues. Every precinct in the 34th District voted against the marriage amendment.
In each case, the candidates said that their views on gay rights had changed since being elected to office.
"This is not an issue I was prepared for six years ago. I have tried to learn from the voters," said Petersen, who is a former member of the House of Delegates.
Devolites Davis said personal experiences had caused her to rethink some stances.
"I have four daughters, one of which has been in trouble. It has opened my eyes to other things," said Devolites Davis.
Party affiliation is one reason voters concerned about gay rights should support Petersen over Devolites Davis, said the Democratic candidate and some other gay activists attending the forum.
Devolites Davis may support inserting sexual orientation in Virginia's non-discrimination policy, but the measure will not get passed without a Democratic majority, said Petersen.
"In my opinion, you need more friends in Richmond," he said. In order to take control of the Senate, the Democrats need to win four more seats and Devolites Davis, who represents a more moderate district, is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans.
"This issue is larger than Jeannemarie or myself," said Petersen.
The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community should not "shoot itself in the foot" by backing Devolites Davis, said Tom Osborne, treasurer of the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club.
"Who is in charge of the Senate makes all the difference in the world," he said, adding that now that the Democrats have control of the federal government, national discussion has turned away from restricting gay rights to efforts like including sexual orientation in hate crimes legislation.
"The same kind of things will happen in Virginia if Democrats take the majority," said Osborne. He also said that Petersen — who has voted in favor of gay rights legislation is the past — has a better record than Devolites Davis, who has not been consistent.
The issue of gay rights has less to do with political party affiliation and more to do with regional affiliation, said Devolites Davis.
"I can name the Democrats from down state who would not vote for any of your bill," she said, who referred to herself as a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
Until this election cycle, Devolites Davis had always drawn a primary opponent because the Republican Party did not consider her conservative enough, she said.
"I have a very good record of being independent," she said.
The Democrats also had control of the General Assembly until 1999 and gay rights were not moved forward, said Devolites Davis.