Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ran on culture wars, takes cautious approach to Pride

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ran on culture wars, takes cautious approach to Pride

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VIRGINIA BEACH — Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ran for office last year as a sunny but deeply conservative culture warrior, traveled to this gay-friendly city this week to meet with Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBTQ group — chatting amicably with them for more than an hour without uttering a word about LGBTQ rights.

A day earlier, the Republican hosted a private Pride reception at the Capitol without inviting any of Virginia’s openly gay, lesbian or transgender state legislators.

More than a week into Pride Month, the new governor has not issued a proclamation but has made some deliberate — if highly focused — outreach to a community that he once embraced as a private equity executive but hardly courted in last year’s gubernatorial campaign. Youngkin’s limited overtures are an extension of the balancing act he pulled off in the campaign — and, at a time when he’s often mentioned as a potential 2024 presidential contender, could set him apart on LGBTQ issues from likely contenders known for taking a harder line.

As co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, Youngkin celebrated on Twitter in 2019 when the Human Rights Campaign lauded the company as one of the nation’s “best places to work for LGBTQ equality.” But on his way to the governor’s mansion, he campaigned against certain trans-rights measures, such as opposing the participation of trans girls on teams that align with their gender identity. And while saying he accepts same-sex marriage as a matter of law, he also indicated he personally opposes such unions.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the governor’s recent overtures, such as the Pride reception, are consistent with his promise to be a governor for all Virginias.

“The Governor is committed to leading on behalf of all Virginians and events like this help strengthen our communities and the spirit of Virginia,” she said in a written statement.

Youngkin’s outreach, however limited, has surprised some political observers in a state where LGBTQ rights have not been widely championed by Republican leaders. Just two years ago, Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) got the boot from fellow Republicans after presiding over a same-sex wedding. Last year, a candidate for the GOP lieutenant governor’s nomination endured attacks from at least one Republican rival for supporting LGBTQ rights and attending a local Pride event. And this year, a Republican-led state House subcommittee killed a bipartisan effort to strip a defunct ban on same-sex marriage from the state constitution.

Youngkin’s overtures also run counter to the culture fights he has continued since taking office — and to the approach that two of his potential rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination have taken toward LGBTQ issues. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in March signed a law that bans discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in early elementary grades, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has directed his state agencies to investigate parents for child abuse for allowing their trans children to receive puberty blockers or gender reassignment surgery.

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Just last month, Youngkin seemed to flirt with a policy similar to DeSantis’s as he sounded the alarm over age-inappropriate teaching.

“I think one of the biggest challenges that we have is that we aren’t allowing our children to, in fact, be children,” Youngkin said at a news conference called to release a report on the state’s K-12 schools. “And they’re being forced into discussions that, in all candor, they’re not ready to be — they’re not ready to have, all in the name of wanting to enlighten them.”

Youngkin declined to explain what he meant at the time and had announced no policy on that front.

“He’s dancing on the edge of a tightrope, not wanting to offend either side,” said conservative radio host John Fredericks, who has been supportive of Youngkin but thinks his have-it-both-ways approach to the issue “comes off as consultant -driven and swampy.” “If he’s supportive of the Log Cabin Republicans, as I am, and the LGBT community, as I am, then say it. It is what it is. But … he doesn’t want to end up as the next Denver Riggleman.”

Even Youngkin’s cautious approach has troubled some conservatives.

“Governor Youngkin should meet with all citizens but celebrating pride month dismays many people of faith who encounter the inevitable conflict between their religious freedom and the lgbtq agenda,” Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, wrote in a text message to The Washington Post.

Youngkin’s recent outreach includes a private lunch at the Executive Mansion with a group of Log Cabin Republicans earlier this month and his appearance Wednesday before the Virginia LGBTQ+ Advisory Board to condemn a hate-fueled disruption at a previous meeting. His efforts have drawn mixed reviews, with more liberal LGBTQ leaders highly skeptical of Youngkin’s motives and more conservative Log Cabin leaders happy for the outreach.

All but one member of the advisory board boycotted his Pride reception despite its convenient timing and location. (The event kicked off early Wednesday evening as the board wrapped up a meeting just steps from the Capitol.) Some board members alert during the meeting that their attendance would help the governor “gaslight” the public on his social views.

Chairwoman Lisa A. Turner also said it was “ridiculous” that some invitations had been extended with just two days’ notice and that the state’s four LGBTQ legislators — all Democrats — were not on the guest list.

“I appreciate the Governor’s invitation, but I think it is premature for this administration to celebrate LGBTQ+ equality when it has yet to take any meaningful steps to advance it,” James Millner, director of Virginia Pride, said in a written statement issued to the public.

But Michael Berlucchi, the one advisory board member to attend, said the event allowed him to engage with a governor he described as “still learning about our community.”

“I accepted his invitation because I perceived it to be a good-faith, honest attempt to engage all Virginians,” said Berlucchi, a Republican who is a member of the Virginia Beach City Council. “There’s obviously a gap there. … My attendance does not convey a total endorsement of the governor’s policies. Of course we have more work to do, and that’s why dialogue and learning are essential.”

Two years ago, when Democrats won full control of state government, Virginia passed sweeping LGBTQ-rights legislation that bans discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Some feard those gains could be reversed if Republicans, who flipped the House on Youngkin’s coattails and will get a shot at the state Senate next year, win full control of the legislature with a Republican chief executive. Adding to their anxiety is a concern that the US Supreme Court could reverse itself on same-sex marriage, which could have the effect of reviving Virginia’s defunct constitutional ban.

Holding a Pride reception two months after House Republicans killed an effort to repeal the state ban and replace it with an “affirmative right to marry is the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’ without action,” said Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William), who in 2017 became the first openly transgender person to be elected to any US statehouse.

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But some Log Cabin Republicans, who only recently established their three chapters in Virginia, said those fears are overblown.

Casey Flores, president of Log Cabin Republicans of Richmond, differs philosophically with some more-left-leaning members of the LGBTQ community on certain issues, including whether a business such as a wedding-cake bakery should be allowed to turn away gay customers on religious grounds. (“We don’t want you to have to bake the cake,” he said.)

But Flores said he feels confident that certain basic rights, such as the right to marry and adopt children, are secure in the commonwealth under Youngkin. Flores attended the mansion lunch and said while Youngkin made no policy statements or promises, the governor seemed to listen as some guests said they would continue to push for the same-sex marriage ban’s repeal.

“I thanked the governor for having the event,” Flores said. “This wouldn’t have been popular among Republicans even a decade ago. … I think it’s a little bit silly, the reaction from the left. They lambaste Republicans, very often calling them anti-gay, and then as soon as a Republican takes a step toward the gay community, they go crazy over it.”

While Youngkin took some skewering on Twitter for closing the Capitol reception to the press — “In Virginia we celebrate pride behind closed doors,” a columnist for the Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press tweeted — some LGBTQ-rights acknowledged that Democratic governors Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe also held private Pride receptions at the Executive Mansion.

Youngkin’s appearance Thursday evening in Virginia Beach was open to the press but was billed on his public schedule in a way that included no tie to LGBTQ causes: “Governor Glenn Youngkin meets with business and community leaders.” An advisory issued to reporters a few hours beforehand noted that the event, at Town Center City Club, would be hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans of Hampton Roads.

Youngkin opened with a well-practiced spiel about his work to slash taxes, improve schools and wrestle the best budget possible out of a divided General Assembly. He threw out stats about higher workforce participation rates and shorter wait times at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which he said averaged 35 minutes when he took office in January.

“Today, the average wait time in the Commonwealth of Virginia is 11 minutes,” he said.

From there, Youngkin opened the floor to questions for 40 minutes — a risky proposition for a politician at any public forum, especially one hosted by a group whose cause he has not embraced.

But the crowd of about 60 LGBTQ leaders, business owners and members of the general public, who’d applauded heartily at the notice of 11-minute DMV wait times, stuck to kitchen-table fare. A massage therapist wanted help with licensing issues. Home builders and a nursing agency owner sought a fix for scarce skilled labor. A couple of moms wanted more career opportunities in the region so their kids won’t move away when they’re grown.

Had Phil Kazmierczak, president of Log Cabin Republicans of Hampton Roads, not made a passing reference to his husband, or Virginia Beach Mayor Robert M. Dyer not referred to “the politics of inclusion” in his “welcoming city,” the event would have been ordinary Youngkin fare.

Kazmierczak said Youngkin is finding common ground with LGBTQ conservatives by speaking to issues they already agree on — lower taxes, for instance, or business-friendly policies. He does not expect Youngkin to champion LGBTQ rights, but also feels confident that the governor will not try to roll them back.

“He’s not going out of his way to create a show or a performance,” Kazmierczak said. “This is who he is. … I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him in private. He’s loving, he is welcoming, he is tolerant. … He’s not going to try and roll [LGBTQ rights] back. … We are coexisting.”