Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, on Saturday signed into law a bill that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, making Virginia the first Southern state to offer such protections.

Northam, who was expected to sign the bill, said in a statement that the legislation sends “a strong, clear message” about equality in Virginia.

“This legislation sends a strong, clear message – Virginia is a place where all people are welcome to live, work, visit, and raise a family,” said Northam. “We are building an inclusive commonwealth where there is opportunity for everyone, and everyone is treated fairly. No longer will LGBTQ Virginians have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are.”

Northam has signed two additional major LGBT rights bills this legislative session, including a bill that adds a non-binary option to driver's licenses and one that prohibits therapies that attempt to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBT youth.

LGBT rights became a priority for Democrats after they regained control of the General Assembly in November. Republicans had previously blocked such bills.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest LGBT rights advocate, had campaigned heavily in support of candidates who support LGBT rights.

“No one should be discriminated against simply because of who they are or whom they love,” said HRC President Alphonso David. “Right now, as the country and the world deals with an unprecedented pandemic, it is more important than ever to ensure that leaders are looking out for all of us. In this period of uncertainty, it is vital that we are all protected from bias as we earn a living, access housing and healthcare, and seek goods and services.”

The legislation, titled the Virginia Values Act, will take effect on July 1.