Last evening, Equality Virginia, the Commonwealth’s leading advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) equality, along with 35 partners and school board leaders across the Commonwealth, filed an amicus brief in support of transgender students in Virginia schools.
The brief asks the Supreme Court of Virginia to uphold the Circuit Court for the County of King William’s dismissal of Peter Vlaming’s lawsuit against the West Point School Board, which rejected Mr. Vlaming’s claims that his firing for violation of the West Point School Board’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies violated his rights under Virginia law.
The West Point School Board has a compelling interest in protecting its transgender students from the harms associated with discriminatory treatment. It must also comply with Title IX, which prohibits discrimination against transgender children on the basis of their gender identities, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. To serve these interests and comply with the law, the West Point School Board must treat its transgender students equally—including by ensuring that its staff addresses transgender students, like their cisgender peers, with the names and pronouns that reflect their gender identity. The illusory burden asserted by Mr. Vlaming cannot stand against this compelling interest.
An amicus curiae brief, or “friend of the court” brief, is filed by organizations or persons not directly involved in a case to provide information related to issues to help courts reach decisions.
The groups point to the negative and harmful experiences of transgender and non-binary students and their families in Virginia schools as reasons why anti-discrimination policies and practices, such as using a student’s correct pronouns, can mitigate these harms.
“Transgender and non-binary students, when compared to their cisgender peers, face physical abuse, bullying, and extreme emotional harm at higher rates, which impact their well-being and education,” said Narissa S. Rahaman, Executive Director at Equality Virginia. “The West Point School Board’s antidiscrimination and anti-harassment policies aim to counteract and prevent those harms. We know that transgender students thrive when they are supported by an inclusive school environment, which includes using their correct pronouns.”
“The harm of differentiating transgender students from their peers and failing to affirm their identities is well-established in the courts,” said S. Douglas Bunch, Partner at civil rights law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. “Sadly, this effect is magnified when the hostile actor is a teacher. School policies, such as one of using pronouns that reflect a transgender student’s identity, are there to mitigate these harms and allow all students to thrive in school.”
According to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey, Virginia schools were not safe for most LGBTQ+ secondary school students. In addition, many LGBTQ+ students in Virginia did not have access to important school resources, such as an LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum, and were not protected by supportive and inclusive school policies.
School-based supports such as supportive and inclusive school policies, school personnel who are supportive of LGBTQ+ students, GSAs, and LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum resources can positively affect school climate for LGBTQ+ students. Findings from GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey demonstrate that students attending schools with these resources and supports report more positive school experiences, including lower victimization and absenteeism and higher academic achievement.
This is the second amicus brief of its kind that Equality Virginia and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll have filed on behalf of the welfare of transgender and non-binary students in Virginia. On July 9, 2021 Equality Virginia and over 50 partners and school board leaders across the Commonwealth filed a brief in support of Virginia’s model policies to make schools safer and inclusive for transgender students.
Groups signing on to the amicus brief include:
GLSEN Southwest Virginia
Hampton Roads Pride
He She Ze and We
Hill City Pride
PFLAG Blue Ridge
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia
Pride Liberation Project
Rappahannock Region Transgender Support (RRTS)
Restoration Fellowship RVA
Richmond Triangle Players
Rockbridge LGBTQIA+ Alliance
Side by Side VA, Inc.
Southeastern Transgender Resource Center
Stonewall Sports Richmond
Transgender Assistance Program Virginia
UGRC/Black Pride RVA
Virginia Anti-Violence Project
Virginia Council on LGBTQ+
Honorable Barbara J. Kanninen (Arlington County)
Honorable David Priddy (Arlington County)
Honorable Lisa Larson-Torres (Chair, Charlottesville City)
Honorable Karl V. Frisch (Fairfax County)
Honorable Laura Downs (Chair, Falls Church City)
Honorable David Ortiz (Falls Church City)
Honorable Lori Silverman (Falls Church City)
Honorable Elizabeth Warner (Stafford County)
Mr. Jason Kamras (Richmond City)