LGBTQ+ Students Under Attack In Virginia

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin recently came out with a proposal that would roll back accommodations set in place for LGBTQ+ students in Virginia public schools during his predecessor’s term.

Virginia was once hailed as one of the few blue state in the South as a result of the last seven years being dominated by Democratic victories in all three main elections: Governor, Senator and Representative. Despite his controversial past, former Governor Ralph Northam was nevertheless praised by Virginia Democrats and even some independents for his reforms on marijuana legalization, abortion, and gun control. 

In early 2019, a picture emerged of Northam as a college student partaking in blackface. The event almost derailed his political career. Northam vowed to stay in office, believing that Virginia needed a governor who “is strong, has empathy, who has courage and a moral compass.” However, the influence Democrats maintained in Virginia political circles soon subsided when political newcomer Glenn Youngkin stepped in to challenge the status quo in early 2021 and won the governorship later that November.

Former Co-CEO of the financial private-equity firm the Carlyle Group, Youngkin announced he would retire from his position to focus more on public service efforts, but quickly jumped in the hat to run for governor in January 2021.

It was not until the September 2021 debate between Youngkin and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe when polls switched their lanes and started considering Youngkin as a formidable opponent in a “reliably” blue state. 

During the debate, Youngkin brought up a moment during McAuliffe’s first term as governor, in which McAuliffe vetoed legislation that would have required schools to inform parents about sexually explicit content in educational materials. McAuliffe responded to this claim by saying: “I am not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision… I do not think parents should be telling schools what they can teach.” 

The 2021 gubernatorial election was a test before the 2022 midterms to showcase which party would prevail. Historically, the party in the White House generally suffers the most. As a result of McAuliffe’s gaffe, along with him centering his campaign around Trump instead of on local issues, these events ended up giving Youngkin the gubernatorial seat. The election was the first time in 13 years in which a Republican won a statewide race.

During his first days in office, Youngkin’s goal was to “remove politics out of the classroom.” He immediately worked towards this goal by signing legislation that banned critical race theory (CRT), rescinded on COVID-19 restrictions that his predecessor put in place, and called for Virginia’s Attorney General Jason Miyares to investigate the sexual assaults that reportedly occurred in some Loudoun County schools. 

These issues were some of the main concerns centered around Youngkin’s campaign, as he reportedly won for his attack on critical race theory in Loudoun County Public Schools, despite there being no such evidence that proved his claim. The Washington Post noted that while CRT refers to “an academic framework that examines how policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism in the United States,” CRT had never been added in Virginia curriculums, only discussed. The idea of teaching CRT was never formally brought to the table.

As mentioned previously, Youngkin’s campaign centered around the idea to remove politics out of the classroom. According to Michael Stratford and Zach Montellaro from Politico, Youngkin framed his campaign “as a fight over the role of government in public school classrooms and the ‘fundamental right’ of parents to be involved in their children’s education.”  Despite his focus on education leading him to victory, this has alarmed many educators in fear the crackdown may hit teachers the hardest.

The Virginia Department of Education released a new proposal on Sep. 16 that would strip protections from trans students and tighten parental notifications in Virginia, sidetracking from what his predecessor had originally set forward. According to Jaclyn Diaz from NPR, this proposal would affect the nearly one million students enrolled in Virginia public schools. Revised guidelines from the doc include, but are not limited to:

  • Letting parents opt any student out of school counseling pertaining to gender, regardless of what the student requests.
  • Prohibiting students from being addressed by their specified pronouns and names.
  • Denying students access to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.
  • Potentially forcing schools to out Queer students.
  • Prohibiting schools from acknowledging non-binary students.
  • Taking away LGBTQ+ affirming training for teachers.

Modifications to these guidelines will only be accepted based on the extent required under federal law. Virginia is simply one state out of many that has introduced restrictions on LGBTQ+ students in public schools. The LGBTQ+ rights group, Freedom for All Americans, states that there have been more than 200+ anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced at the state level alone. These proposals limit conversations surrounding sexuality and gender identity. 

The Virginia Department of Education declared these new rules as an approach to uphold the rights of parents to limit their children’s exposure to LGBTQ+ content/issues. The department went on further to say that “Virginia reaffirms the rights of parents to determine how their children will be raised and educated. Empowering parents is not only a fundamental right, but it is essential to improving outcomes for all children in Virginia.”

The decision to rewrite the model policies garnered some backlash, with Virginia delegate Danica Roem calling out Youngkin by saying he “should be contested in court under the Virginia Human Rights Act.” The Virginia Human Rights Act protects individuals in public settings from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The public settings portion of the act also includes schools. 

School districts are required by law to implement these, but some school districts in Virginia have already declared they will not abide by this order. According to Laura Meckler from The Washington Post, Falls Church, Alexandria and Arlington school districts have vowed to resist the order that would “reduce the rights of transgender students.”

The Pride Liberation Project, a student-led coalition advocating for Queer youth in Virginia, already announced steps to take action against Youngkin’s proposal. Tuesday, September 27 is the prospective date for the “massive day of action,” in which students across Virginia will be planning walkouts to oppose the model policy drafts proposed by Youngkin. According to their instagram (@prideliberation), the coalition will “follow [the walkouts] up with an extensive media advocacy campaign and rallies at multiple school boards across Virginia.”

Governor Youngkin’s policy to roll back protections for trans students is not in effect yet and a 30-day public comment period will start on Sep. 26.