Wednesday, December 7, 2022

An Interview with Equality Virginia’s Narissa Rahaman

On February 2nd in Richmond, the same day Governor Glenn Youngkin was sworn in amidst concerns he would seek to curtail LGBTQ rights in Virginia, Narissa Rahaman reported to work just down the street for her first day as the new Executive Director at Equality Virginia.

She brings a wealth of experience in boots-on-the ground grassroots mobilizing, state and national level campaign and advocacy work, and a close relationship with many Virginia elected representatives and LGBTQ leaders, she was the obvious choice out of 60 other applicants who sought to release outgoing ED Vee Lamneck.

More impressive than her practical experience is her understanding of the intersectionality of race, gender, and nationality pertaining to LGBTQ and human rights.

Outwire757 sat down with Narissa for a discussion about her background and her plans for protecting and advancing LGBTQ rights for Virginians.

Outwire757: Tell me a little bit about your background. I know you’ve been active in Virginia politics for a while, right?

Rahaman: I’ve been doing work in the Virginia political, legislative, and advocacy realm for four or five years now. I came to Equality Virginia (EV) after being at the Human Rights Campaign for five years. I worked primarily in Virginia, but also had a portfolio of many other states.

I have just over a decade of experience doing electoral campaign work, legislative campaign work, and then just general issue advocacy campaign work. I focus mostly on the South, and I’ve done this type of work in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and now Virginia where I also call home.

Outwire757: What was most appealing component of the Executive position at EV?

Rahaman: Virginia is a place my partner and I call home, and this was a great opportunity for me to be a part of that organization and make sure that the organization is supporting the needs and priorities of Virginia’s LGBTQ community. I was excited to move the organization forward in a more inclusive, intersectional way, whether that’s through the policies we’re supporting or who we are doing the work for.

Outwire757: When you came to EV, I’m sure you were familiar with their work and how the organization performed under Vee Lamneck (the previous Executive Director). What did you bring to EV that you felt might have been lacking?

Rahaman: I think one unique perspective I bring to EV is my lived experience and my background. I’m a queer woman of color and an immigrant, and I live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. I view policy work through an intersectional lens. I can see that EV has not engaged in these  policy areas. I want to make sure that we are fighting for those issues at the General Assembly, in every session, just as much as we are on bills that look explicitly like an LGBTQ bill.

Outwire757: Are you still in the process of getting your feet wet or did you hit the ground running with some policy changes?

Rahaman: You know, I am fortunate that before I got to EV to have spent many years doing work at the General Assembly. A lot of that was supporting EV and its legislative agenda. We have finally wrapped up the legislative session for this year, and I think people have seen EV moving forward the agenda that we put out at the beginning of this year. We’re moving not away from any equality agenda, but towards an equity legislative agenda.

We also know that we have some defensive fights ahead of us. We saw for the first time in a long time Virginia getting swept up in the national trend of bills attacking and targeting transgender youth, and it’s hard to say what will happen next session. But EV is uniquely positioned to make sure that we do not see those bills move forward by stopping them in committee like we did this year.

Outwire757: So, this is the point where I ask you to look into your crystal ball. What’s your sense of what the political climate will be when 2023 rolls around?

Rahaman: First we are keeping an eye on Paul Goldman’s lawsuit to see if there will be elections in the House of Delegates before then. Beyond that, EV is already mobilizing our members in the districts to exercise their right to vote.

It is vital for LGBTQ Virginians that we have a legislature that will prioritize the needs and the issues that are most impacting our community. The legislative elections next year will mark a critical point in how we want the Commonwealth to move forward. We must expand our pro-equality majority in the Senate and take back as many pro-equality seats that we can in the house. And we are prepared to engage in a way that we have not in the past.

Outwire757: And that leads me to the elephant in the room. The potential for SCOTUS to overturn Roe is a real thing now, and it has our community concerned that such a ruling might set a precedent for a similar ruling on marriage equality and other rights. What are your thoughts?

Rahaman: Folks often forget that the reproductive justice and freedom movement is built on the exact same foundation as the LGBTQ movement. We know that reproductive rights are LGBTQ rights and LGBTQ rights are reproductive rights. I don’t think we can talk about full liberation for trans and non-binary people without talking about reproductive freedom.

We’re seeing that the tactics used to attack abortion care are the same ones they’re using to attack gender-affirming care for trans and non-binary people to the point of even attacking healthcare providers. The fact that these two movements–to tear down abortion rights and access and the other to tear down bodily autonomy for trans and non-binary people–are advancing in lockstep is not irrelevant or coincidental. It’s critical that we recognize that this decision will impact trans and non-binary people. We have to remember abortion is healthcare, and gender-affirming care is healthcare.

It’s also vital to talk about what this could mean for the other rights our movement is fortunate to have, such as marriage equality. But we also need to recognize that the attack on our equality is already here, and it’s been here. The state legislatures around the country are rapidly coming after our most vulnerable youth. I think it’s a matter of do folks see it as impacting them. and it does impact everyone when our youth cannot access services that they need to see themselves as whole authentic selves.

Outwire757: I wonder how this movement will trickle down to Virginia state politics, especially as it could impact the Virginia Values Act. I get that question a lot, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I think I want to kick that to you and get your opinion on whether or not there is some sort of threat coming down the pike.

Rahaman: The Virginia Values Act is the law of the land in Virginia. What we are seeing, though, and what we saw in the 2022 Legislative Session is that there are lawmakers who are introducing bills that would undermine or open up the Virginia Values Act to amendments such as religious exemptions which essentially allow religious organizations or institutions to discriminate against LGBTQ people just because of who they are. I don’t see a SCOTUS decision that would impact a state law. Protections that we got two years ago, I don’t anticipate them going away. But they will always try to undermine them.

Outwire757: We were talking about transgender protections and what has been going on across the country and in Virginia in terms of the public schools. Just last night, the Virginia Beach School Board reversed a previous ruling that allowed the book Gender Queer in the libraries. It floors me that some of these decisions are being made unilaterally by local school boards without any regulation from the municipalities or the State. What do you see going on around Virginia that has you most concerned?

Rahaman: Well, as I’m sure you remember, in 2020, through a bipartisan effort, we saw a model policy for trans and nonbinary students pass at the General Assembly that required the Virginia Department of Education to draft a model policy protecting trans and non-binary students in the schools. After the VDOE drafted the policy, community organizations in some districts worked to strengthen them because state law required all school boards to adopt them. But today we’re seeing that out of 133 Virginia counties, we’ve only seen about 10% of them actually adopt the policy.

A lot of our work now is working with school boards and encouraging them to adopt the policies. But we’re also empowering students and parents in these counties how to basically be effective advocates for themselves. Much of that involves training them on how to give public comment and be activists and advocates. In the next coming month, we are going to be unveiling a campaign to make sure that every county in Virginia adopts these policies.

Outwire: Why are there only 10% of these school districts adhering to the law and all the other ones are over a year behind? Where’s the enforcement?

Rahaman: Yeah. I mean, if we boil it down to a very basic level, a lot of these school districts are essentially violating state law. I would not be surprised if this is going to be a very costly choice for school districts to make. Do they want to adopt the policy without any issue and make sure that all students are able to thrive in our school districts or will they ignore it? The ones that do are going to have to set aside a large portion of their budget funding to cover potential lawsuits. We’ve already seen the ACLU of Virginia take some steps on the litigation side.

Outwire757: What can our readers do to support EV’s mission?

Rahaman: There are a couple things. We want folks to be engaged and be a part of reclaiming power for LGBTQ people wherever they work and wherever they call home. For us, that just means get involved. Sign up on our email list  and figure out ways that you can act.

We also want folks to tell their personal stories and share about their lives because that is what moves the needle forward. We can make all the policy changes we want, we can elect as many private quality folks as we want, but until our personal stories are out there., we remain somewhat unknown.

And I won’t shy away from saying that if folks are in a place to donate to Equality Virginia, that always helps us move the mission forward.

This interview first appeared in the June 2022 edition of Outlife757 Magazine. You can reach Equality Virginia at info@equalityvirginia.org.

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