Thursday, June 1, 2023

From Grimm to Grimmer: Youngkin’s Anti LGBTQ+ Model Policies for Virginia Schools Spark Push Back

New statewide efforts from Republican lawmakers targeting transgender students took effect in September with Governor Glenn Youngkin’s implementation of the 2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for all Students and Parents in Virginia Schools. Released by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), these policies essentially reverse the 2021 Model Policies for Transgender Students enacted by former Governor Ralph Northam.

The VDOE says the basis for these new rules is to support “the rights of parents” in determining LGBTQ+ exposure and “promote[s] a specific viewpoint at achieving cultural and social transformation in schools.” 

Others, however, say this is a way to continue fueling fear and anxiety with the most vulnerable population. Local school boards must adopt these model policies or ones that are similar by January 1, 2023.

Youngkin’s Model Policies differ greatly from his predecessor’s. Inspired by the Hanover County Public School Board’s policy which denies the possibility of a student being trans without parental, medical, legal, and educational authorization, the new policies were devised by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group which has filed a number of lawsuits across the country aimed at limiting LGBTQ+ rights. 

The policies explicitly state that students must only use bathrooms and locker rooms associated with their sex assigned at birth. Under Northam’s policies, if a student wanted to use another name or pronoun, “school staff should abide by the student’s wishes as how to address the student.” 

Teachers and other school officials must now only refer to a student by their pronouns associated with sex at birth. They do not have to refer to a student’s preferred name regardless of paperwork “if they feel doing so would violate their constitutional rights.” 

Legal name and sex of student also cannot be changed “even upon written instruction of a parent or eligible student” without an official legal document or court order. 

Participation in sports and extracurricular activities must also align with sex at birth. At most, there have been 23-24 transgender students participating over the years, according to VA Senator Barbara Hashmi. 

The Virginia High School League’s policy for transgender students is quite limiting and does not allow for an influx of students. It requires completion of gender reassignment surgery within three to four years, and that the student maintains ongoing treatment.

In April, in a precursor of what was to come, Youngkin signed Senate Bill 656. This law requires the VDOE to develop additional model policies which notify parents when any “instructional materials” include “sexually explicit content,” and allows parents to opt their child out of any such content. 

The Virginia statute defines sexually explicit content to include bestiality, pornography, or fetishism. However, it also defines sexual conduct as “masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse, or physical contact in an act of apparent sexual stimulation or gratification.” 

These model policies are part of a larger battle across the country which aim to limit conversations about sexuality and gender identity in schools. These also attack gender-affirming medical care and participation by transgender students in athletics. In 2022, more than 200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced at the state level, according to the LGBTQ rights group Freedom for All Americans. 

Many civil rights and LGBTQ+ organizations are pushing back.

In August, more than 600 Virginia students from the Pride Liberation Project sent a letter to the VDOE calling for clarification about HB656. Their letter states that “in effect, SB 656 can potentially be interpreted to define all references to people in same-sex relationships as inherently sexual.” 

Teaching about LGBTQ people and events is not “sexually explicit.” They cite examples of LGBTQ+ history and advise that erasing this content would have a “chilling effect” on their education. 

In September, the Pride Liberation Project also led walkouts and rallies with participation from thousands of students in more than 90 schools across Virginia to oppose the revised model policies on transgender students.

In addition, several Virginia public school systems including Alexandria, Fairfax County, and Charlottesville signaled their intent to ignore the mandate.

Health experts warn these policies will be harmful to  the mental health and safety of trans, non binary, and gender-nonconforming students at school, as well as the broader LGBTQ student body. 

The Trevor Project’s 2022 Health Survey surveyed almost 34,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 across the US and revealed that 93% of transgender and non binary youth have worried about access to gender-affirming healthcare. 91% are worried about their ability to use bathroom of choice and 83% about their ability to play sports.

Delegate Danica Roem, (D, Prince William County) a transgender woman, did not pull any punches when she acknowledged the harm and dangerous precedent posed by the policy. In a tweet, she called for Youngkin’s action to “be contested in court under the Virginia Human Rights Act.” Write or call your representatives and echo the sentiment.

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