Experts, advocates: LGBTQ+ students ‘collateral damage’ in education debates, controversy

Since Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced the 2022 Model Policies for Virginia schools that are intended to require students to use locker rooms and programs that match their assigned sex, rather than their gender identity, controversial conversations have continued to impact day-to-day educational experiences.

Those policies require parental permission to change names and genders noted on school records — issues that have made some Virginia students concerned for their privacy and safety.

While the regulation has yet to be adopted by the state, it’s not the first time some students have said the governor threatened assistance and resources that come from an open and inclusive classroom, which they say are critical.

It is part of a growing conversation about what should and shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom with LGBT-identifying students in the region’s schools at the center of the debates over identity and education in the D.C. area — Loudoun and Fairfax counties, in Virginia, and Frederick County, Maryland, just to name a few.

Many families and organizations have fought to keep schools accommodating for students who don’t identify as straight. Often, these fights were with other parental and community groups.

WTOP asked advocates, experts and opponents what effect these classroom decisions and public debates can have on students.

Va. students fear loss of support, privacy

Youngkin has addressed transgender rights before: Weeks before the announcement of the model policies, during an Aug. 31 back-to-school event billed as a “Parents Matter” rally, Youngkin attacked Fairfax Co. school system Regulation 2603. The rule enshrined students’ right to privacy and barred school officials from sharing a student’s gender or transgender status.

“They think that parents have no right to know what your child is discussing with their teacher or their counselor, particularly when some of the most important topics that a child may want to discuss are being determined,” Youngkin said of the school system.

Attorney General Jason Miyares also told WJLA that the privacy protection instituted by Regulation 2603 stretched beyond what is legally required.

“Parents have a fundamental right to the educational upbringing of their children, and that includes the big decisions that you just mentioned, that parents should be involved and that, I think, is what’s bringing so much frustration — why there’s an energy among parents in Northern Virginia is they feel like they’re being cut out,” Miyares told WJLA.

Despite administration commitments to ensuring “transparency” and that families are “fully informed” when students make decisions on their name, pronouns and gender expression, major advocacy organizations such as Equality Virginia and GLSEN issued rebukes.

“The Governor’s administration needs to hear and really listen to what transgender youth in our schools have to say about their experiences, and ensure that there are policies in place to protect them,” Equality Virginia said in a statement. “By instead making open threats to their rights, the administration is failing transgender students in Virginia and contributing to hostile school environments for our youth.”

Days after a devastating mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs led to five deaths and 17 injuries, Equality Virginia strengthened its calls.

“I’m urging you to do the right thing and rescind the proposed 2022 VDOE model policies. The safety of all LGBTQ+ Virginians depends on you doing the right thing,” executive director Narissa Rahaman wrote in a letter to Gov. Youngkin and State Superintendent Jillian Balow.

In a statement in the Los Angeles Blade, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director for GLSEN, said, “Transgender and nonbinary students need respect and autonomy, not additional scrutiny and policing of their gender identity in school.”

Rivka Vizcardo-Lichter, a student spokesperson for the Pride Liberation Project, said the organization wants the board of education to “revoke its draft revisions and for the school boards to affirm their commitment to protect all students by rejecting these bigoted proposed guidelines.” Vizcardo-Lichter said these privacy protections are part of creating a supportive, accepting educational environment, calling them critical to students’ well-being.

Two students who didn’t want to be identified agreed.

Speaking with WTOP, one Fairfax County school student said the move “makes school unsafe.” They said they felt like they wouldn’t be able to share their gender identity or preferred names and pronouns.

“A lot of students and a lot of districts have had rules established protecting queer students from malicious deadnaming, from different forms of discrimination,” the student told WTOP. The governor’s action, they said, “has effectively removed or stripped these rights from students.”

The student also chided the governor’s decision to prioritize parental rights without fully considering students. “For politicians to kind of just consider parents’ views as opposed to students — ever — harms the students in the long run.”

“As a queer student, it just generally makes school unsafe. It’s stuff like being a little more uncomfortable to use … my pronouns with other people. It’s just like, not wanting to be as out and proud as (I) have always been,” a Fairfax County Public Schools student told WTOP.

Another queer-identifying student said if these protections were to be taken away, they would be at risk of homelessness, exploitation, and mental health issues.

“I rely on these protections to be safe at school,” the student said. “I’ve had friends who have been kicked out of their homes, denied access to financial support, and threatened with conversion therapy after their family found out they were queer. These protections are lifesaving and oftentimes the only safeguard against homelessness, financial harm, abuse, and trauma for unsupported queer students.”

Youngkin pushed back on students’ fears.

“I firmly believe that teachers and schools have an obligation to make sure that parents are well-informed about what’s happening in their kids’ lives,” Youngkin said in an interview with WJLA. “And one of the things we learned last year during the campaign is that parents were tired of being pushed to the background in their child’s education.”

Students in the Pride Liberation Project believed this statement showed Youngkin’s “support for repealing privacy protections that ensure LGBTQIA+ students are not forcibly outed by their schools.”

When asked whether this was an accurate representation of Youngkin’s position, Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin’s office, said his comments were misunderstood at the time and “not an accurate understanding of his position.”

Rob Damschen, the deputy communications director for Youngkin’s office, said the policies are intended to guide institutions in the commonwealth with regard to the “privacy, dignity and respect of the 1.3 million students in public education.”

“Unfortunately, there are some voices in the commonwealth seeding disingenuous narratives that stoke fear and sow division about the policies,” Damschen said in an emailed statement. “We encourage interested students, their parents, educators and all engaged Virginians to review the guidance itself, which reinforces that ‘every effort should be made to ensure that a transgender student wishing to change his or her means of address is treated with respect, compassion and dignity in the classroom and school environment.'”

A spokesperson for the office also pointed WTOP to a number of positive reviews of the model policies, alongside a column by Virginia’s state superintendent Jillian Balow in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Some of those anonymous comments and reviews questioned how ethical it is for public schools to stray “away from its fundamental educational responsibilities,” questioning whether schools have begun “pushing social agendas which should be left alone in public education.”

“I am a trans-man (FTM) who transitioned 18 years ago, and I am firmly against any state policy that excludes parents,” one comment read. “No student (minor) should be allowed to change pronouns or obtain hormones without their parents knowing about it.”

Another anonymous commenter was concerned about the safety of students, though specific details were not shared.

“The risk of assault on our children is (too) great to allow these policies to remain. It has already happened several times. Do not let it happen again,” the comment read.

Though the connection between LGBTQ+ issues and assaults across the commonwealth is unclear, claims of safety concerns have been central to pressures from inside and outside the commonwealth.

Maryland and DC

Similar concerns were raised by instructors in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, when a transgender teacher sued the school district, eventually settling after several instances of alleged discrimination and harassment.

Jennifer Eller sued the system in 2018, saying that after she transitioned in 2011, she was subjected to harassment from administrators and students. She was told by one school not to wear skirts; students at one school called her a pedophile; at a high school, students verbally assaulted her in the parking lot, “including telling her that they would ‘rape’ her and make her ‘their girlfriend,'” the teacher recounted through her legal representation.

Lawyers for Eller said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that there was harassment and discrimination, and that the school system’s “publicly accessible employee directory still lists Ms. Eller by her male birth name.” The settlement came just days before any trial began.

Meghan Gebreselassie, a spokesperson for the system, said PGCPS would be “promoting and maintaining learning and working environments that are safe, positive and affirming” for all students and staff.

Dhruvak Mirani saw issues like these and made advocacy and equity for minority groups a focus while in a Howard County high school, turning the drive into political action after his graduation. Before running as the youngest candidate on the county’s Democratic primary ticket, he was working on diversity initiatives within his school and district, running for a student school board position and fighting against book bans with fellow students. There is currently no legislative push by governors and state legislatures in this area to keep LGBTQ books or discussions out of the classroom.

“I think that these things in Howard County, such as book bans, such as extremists running for our board of education using openly racist dog whistles like ‘restoring neighborhood schools’ and things like that, is an enormous threat,” Mirani told WTOP. He called it “kind of a culmination of the rhetoric that I have seen for the past 13 years.”

Any student who is developing in public schools and “learning how to learn in school” is already undergoing a difficult venture, Mirani added. “I really do worry that any student who goes through what is happening right now” will see more barriers. Students, he said, need advocacy and representation in their education to “see yourself as a young person” reflected in mentors and educators.

He’s worried the county is moving in the opposite direction, warning of an “extremist” push in his school district’s environment, “where it is openly, it is unambiguously, it is tangibly, hurting students.”

D.C. congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said the District could see similar problems if Congress gets involved with D.C. schools, because D.C. has not achieved statehood and is affected by national issues that shape political parties in Congress.

“Based on the flood of anti-LGBTQ bills in the states, ranging from so-called Don’t Say Gay Bills to anti-transgender bathroom bills, we have every reason to believe that a Republican Congress will launch such attacks against D.C.’s LGBTQ residents,” Norton said in a statement.

She added that congressional Republicans have previously overturned D.C. laws on marriage equality and domestic partnerships while upholding other rights held by religiously affiliated institutions in the District.

Chairman of the District’s Republican Party Patrick Mara responded to Norton’s characterization, saying that the city has maintained legislative and budget autonomy, with D.C. voting rights centered in its platform.

“We have always been and will continue to be forceful advocates for Home Rule and self-governance in the District of Columbia,” Mara said.

Mara added that GOP leadership maintains open channels of communication with relevant congressional officials, including committees and staff with jurisdiction over D.C.

Impact of the national debate

“If I declare I’m a woman today, can I follow you into the girls’ bathroom?,” one male parent said during a school board meeting on Sept. 21, 2021, in Loudoun County.

The heated discussion surrounding that comment was among many in a dispute that led to the placing of educators on leave, bookended by concerns over sexual assault claims and fearmongering over trans-identifying persons in the area.

Cris Candice Tuck, the president of Equality Loudoun, told WTOP the claims that accommodations for transgender students harm those whose gender identity matches their assigned sex are false, and they and make it difficult for LGBT students and their parents to share their personal experiences, which hurts the community.

Especially, she said, once such stories become topics of national conversation.

“I know locally this is something we try to understand locally,” Tuck said, “but these kids are on social media. These kids are seeing what I’m seeing on social media. … That is having a huge impact on these people — on this community.”

She added that media focus has “changed the conversation around this issue. … It has, basically, elevated normal issues that happen in every school district, whether they’re LGBTQ or not, and put them under a microscope,” Tuck said.

After several local and national news outlets incorrectly reported that a trans-identifying student committed a rape in the district, Tuck said, the problem worsened.

“Every time someone from Fight for Schools, or Moms (for) Liberty, or any of these other organizations gets on TV,” and says something untrue or inflammatory, “there’s a news report” that repeats those claims, she said in a statement to WTOP.

Concerns over parents’ rights

Moms for Liberty is an organization with more than 240 chapters, including several in the D.C. area, that calls themselves “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

Tiffany Justice, one of the organization’s co-founders, said their focus on “parental rights” — the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of children — stemmed from policies they believed were harmful to students and their relationships with parents.

“When our country was being founded, our founding fathers didn’t think to put into the Bill of Rights that parents have the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children,” she said, adding that “we do not co-parent with the government.”

Justice said parents have become concerned with “extreme sexual content and sexual violence” in public school libraries. Pointing to Florida committees for reviewing public school library content, she said that Gov. Glenn Youngkin should follow in Florida’s footsteps by including stakeholders in rating and viewing certain content.

“We have rating systems in all kinds of things,” she said, such as movies, websites and video games. “I do believe it’s the effort of queer theorists and Marxists to blur the line between child and adult, and we see again government schools working to aid in that as well,” Justice told WTOP.

WTOP asked Justice about concerns that students have voiced — that Youngkin’s policy makes schools less safe for LGBTQ+ identifying students. She said that “parents today love and accept their children,” pushing back against the claims while emphasizing that adults may be more to blame for the students’ distrust of family members.

“I think it’s all nonsense,” she said. “We live in 2022. I have no doubt that in years past, it was probably more difficult to come out to your parents as being gay, but we live in 2022.”

She also claimed schools are “telling children that somehow home might not be a safe space for them,” which she called “a violation of our parental rights.”

Another student shared concerns that those identifying as LGBT could be harmed if their parents knew about their sexuality. Justice claimed the issues are manufactured.

“This is a manufactured controversy created by adults to sow chaos and discord and further try to divide parents from children,” she said.

She concluded that some — not all — teachers believe their job is to divide parent and child, and that parents know what’s best for their child and act in their best interest.

“You see, in Virginia, you have a governor saying that parents are the best expert of their child, and you have schools saying ‘No, we don’t think that’s true. We’re going to keep secrets from parents because kids are saying they can’t trust their parents,‘” Justice said. “Well, you know, here’s the truth: Sometimes the most loving thing that your child can hear is ‘No.'”

Experts outline concerns, educational needs

WTOP spoke with eight experts to determine what could be at the heart of these sexuality-driven education challenges, and how to navigate them better. They agreed that recognizing the harm this politicized issue can cause was the first step to making positive changes.

First, experts agreed that students and families who don’t feel comfortable and can’t access community resources in their area need the assistance that comes from an open and welcoming school environment. They said a lack of inclusive action in education leads to a high risk of isolation and negative mental health outcomes — including suicide.

David Huebner, professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, said a lack of protection can have an insidious impact on the access that students get to mental and physical health resources they need.

“We know that supportive school environments are very protective for LGBT kids,” Huebner said. Activists who support removing books and content with LGBT themes, he added, are functionally “making it impossible for schools to provide that kind of supportive environment.”

Dwayne Wright, an assistant professor and director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at George Washington University, said the exclusion of LGBT people, histories and discussions damages people who are unable to express themselves in educational settings.

The decision to keep such topics out of the classroom, Wright said, “deprives the individual student of answers that other students get at their same level of development.”

Even considering parents’ best intentions, Wright said, the loss of these voices in favor of what is perceived as “normal” or heterosexual is a form of “collateral damage” that communities can’t accept. He sees a need for diverse literature in educational settings, especially inclusive of marginalized groups such as LGBT individuals and people of color.

Wright says that the foundation of controversies surrounding bills in Florida and Georgia limiting access to some content and resources surrounding LGBT issues, like discussions over what’s being labeled critical race theory, is more political than real.

“The critical race theory ban,” he said, referring to one of the main issues behind Youngkin’s win in Virginia, “is trying to find a wedge issue” and “ignores the trauma of these students.”

Wright said that sexuality and parental rights have become central to how we talk about the impact LGBT communities in schools, when the focus should be on what is best for all students, including those who identify as something other than straight or white.

“Every student, regardless of who they are, regardless of what their parents believe — whether that be protestant or Christian, Jew, gentile or atheist — should see themselves reflected in their curriculum,” he said

This means, Wright said, that educational institutions and families should assess books at issue — titles such as “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Lawn Boy” — and ask themselves whether those stories really are harmful.

Experts suggested that all students should engage with a broad set of narratives, including stories and information that includes students who identify as people of color, LGBT and all those in between.

Wright added that in our media landscape, where social media informs youth and adults, we have to also keep in mind who is hurt by these controversial topics and use that information to guide our responses. These books and conversations, he said, will be critical to ensuring the health and well-being of students already at a statistically higher likelihood of having mental health issues.

“Are we willing to risk student lives to remove one book, one identity, from our schools?,” Wright said. “If so, who is next?”

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein and Rick Massimo contributed to this report.

Ivy Lyons

Ivy Lyons is a digital journalist for WTOP.com. Since 2018, they have worked on Capitol Hill, at NBC News in Washington, and with WJLA in Washington.

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