As public schools in Virginia prepare to welcome back students over the next few weeks, transgender and nonbinary children and their families are anxiously waiting to find out whether their schools will adopt new statewide policies that target them.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration last month announced it had finalized policies that each district could choose to implement in its schools. Under the guidelines, created by the state Education Department, trans kids would not be allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity and students would need parental permission to use a name or pronouns not in their official school record.
For nearly a year, the Youngkin administration has been considering and making small adjustments to these guidelines, which have led to statewide student walkouts. The state Education Department initially delayed implementing the policies while it reviewed the 70,000 public comments they garnered online.
The new guidelines have officially gone into effect, but districts won’t face any repercussions if they don’t enforce them in their schools. The uncertainty over which counties will adopt Youngkin’s guidelines is creating chaos for students in the days before they go back to school.
“I know folks are scared and anxious, but that’s ultimately the goal,” Narissa Rahaman, the executive director of Equality Virginia, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group, told HuffPost. “We’ve now got a lot of kids who can’t enjoy their last few weeks of summer break because they’re wondering if they’re going to be deadnamed, or misgendered, or bullied at school.”
The policies are a complete reversal of ones implemented by former Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in 2021, which recommended that teachers use the correct pronouns for transgender students and also allowed kids to use the bathroom matching their gender identity. Much like they now can with Youngkin’s policies, school districts could opt out of the guidance.
Many counties are allowing their school boards to vote on whether to implement the new policies after hearing from members of the community.
During a meeting last week in deep-red Roanoke County, people shouted in support of LGBTQ+ kids and all 27 attendees who gave a public comment denounced the new guidelines. Two people were arrested and charged with trespassing when they disrupted the meeting and refused to leave, with one yelling “protect trans kids!” while being handcuffed by police.
“If a transgender student or nonbinary student had permission to change their pronouns or name from their parents and a teacher chooses to use what we call a dead name or pronoun because they do not respect the identity of the child, that to me is humiliation,” said Decca Knight, according to local CBS affiliate WDBJ7. A LinkedIn profile identifies Knight as a former school counselor in Roanoke County.
“That is the definition of bullying and it will undoubtedly harm that student,” she added.
Officials in Loudoun County, a swing county in a swing state, are set to discuss the new policies at a school board meeting next week. At least one board member has already publicly expressed support for a provision that encourages, but does not require, teachers to inform parents that their child is using different pronouns at school, unless the student is deemed at risk of suicidal ideation.
“Keeping parents in the dark on matters associated with their children’s mental health is antiethical to working in the best interest of children when it comes to their education,” board member Tiffany Polifko wrote in an email to the Loudoun Times-Mirror.
But for students who are not yet out to their parents, this could prove dangerous. “[These policies] prohibit school districts from protecting trans students against forced outing to their parents before they’re ready and it may not be safe at home,” Wyatt Rolla, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, told WDBJ7.
Some large districts in the state have decided to forgo a board vote, and have instead already come out forcefully against the new policies.
Francisco Durán, the superintendent of Arlington Public Schools — an independent school district located just across the border from Washington, D.C. — issued a lengthy statement about his schools’ commitment to equality.
“I reaffirm our unwavering support for our LGBTQIA+ students, staff and community,” Durán wrote, referring to LGBTQ+ people as well as intersex and asexual individuals.
“I want our transgender, non-binary, and gender fluid students to hear loud and clear that you belong here, you are valued, and we stand with and support you.”
Fairfax County Public Schools — the largest school district in the state, located 20 miles from Washington — released a similar statement.
“I want to be clear that FCPS remains committed to an inclusive and affirming learning environment for each and every student and staff member including those who are transgender or gender expansive,” Superintendent Michelle Reid said. “Our schools will continue to be safe, welcoming, and respectful learning spaces.”
Virginia’s new guidelines come as Republicans nationwide wage war on both transgender youth and public schools. Nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2023 so far, and policies reshaping public schooling are proliferating in red states.
Youngkin won his gubernatorial race in 2021 by campaigning on “parental rights,” a catchall phrase that conservatives use to mean limiting what teachers can say in classrooms, prohibiting access to certain books in libraries, and restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ children while they’re at school.
“This is all a part of the governor’s plans to undermine public education here in Virginia,” Rahaman told HuffPost. “And he’s choosing to do that on the backs of trans youth.”
She added: “Permitting teachers to deadname and misgender students, to out students to potentially unsupportive parents? These are all bullying.”
Virginians as a whole don’t seem to be on board with policies targeting the LGBTQ+ community. Every anti-trans policy recently introduced in the legislature, including one to ban trans youth from school sports teams matching their gender identities, has failed.
“We have a majority of people who oppose these vehemently because they understand the harm,” Rahaman said. “The people speaking in support of it are a small group of folks. Just because they’re the loudest doesn’t mean they’re right.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for mental health support. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.