We come from different political parties, represent two different parts of the state and sometimes vote differently as a result. As two of the youngest members of the West Virginia State Senate, however, we hold much in common.
Both of us have seen too many people we grew up with leave the state we love. Many who left did so in order to begin their careers or further their education elsewhere – decisions we respect but that also fuel our own personal commitment to creating more opportunities here at home.
Some, however, have left due to not feeling accepted because of who they love. To us, that perceived lack of inclusivity goes against the foundation of what we believe is the true West Virginia.
For generations, people from diverse backgrounds -– coal mines, steel mills, family farms, schools, and office buildings — have worked together to create a shared identity as West Virginians. The basis of that shared identity taught to us by our parents and grandparents is the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. We were taught to earn respect by giving it to others. That’s the very fabric of our West Virginia heritage.
Recently, discussion about whether members of the LGBTQ community deserve the same rights that so many of us benefit from has stirred an impassioned debate. That debate spurred our decision to come together and make it clear that we believe our fellow Mountaineers in the LGBTQ community deserve to be treated with the same respect that we have all come to expect as human beings — a respect that means fairness, equality and dignity under the law.
We believe that diversity makes us stronger. Difference produces growth, creates prosperity and builds stronger communities. The targeting of any community undermines the sanctity of all lives. We believe that all kinds are welcome in West Virginia.
In a state that has seen far too many young people leave the place we still call home, we want to reverse the tide. We need and want the talents of everyone born among these hills, and that includes members of the LGBTQ community who must feel welcome to live, work, and raise a family here.
Unless we have the help of all who love our great state, unless everyone can be proud to live here, we won’t be able to fully realize our potential. We’re not in a position to turn someone away simply because they may be different from us. The talents, skills, and diversity that those in the LGBTQ community bring to the table are essential to West Virginia being a strong, vibrant state.
For all these reasons, and because we believe it is the right thing to do, we have previously signed on as sponsors to legislation that would ensure that no West Virginian can be discriminated against in housing or employment simply because of who they love or who they are. This legislation holds broad, bipartisan support in the Senate and we believe it deserves to be debated and taken up for a vote.
We understand and appreciate that not everyone agrees with us on this issue. Some of our colleagues are adamant in their opposition. Some of our constituents feel the same way. We respect their views and don’t believe they come from a place of malice but rather of deeply held beliefs.
We simply ask folks who oppose fairness under the law to consider one question: What if by not recognizing everyone as deserving equal treatment we’re violating the Golden Rule? What if we continue to drive away young people and potential businesses with exclusionary practices? What if we miss this opportunity to show not only all West Virginians, but the entire nation, that all are welcome here in the Mountain State?
As legislators we took an oath to protect all of our constituents without exception. By respecting differences and seeking places where we can work together, we aim to honor those who built this state while moving us into the future.
Let us recommit to what we believe is the meaning of our state motto: “Mountaineers are always free.” Free to live. Free to love. Free to be themselves.
Senator Stephen Baldwin (D) represents the 10th District which includes Fayette, Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties. He is a minister at the Ronceverte Presbyterian Church. Senator Ryan Weld represents the 1st District which includes Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall counties. He is an attorney with the firm of Spilman Thomas & Battle.