Transgender and nonbinary students in Virginia will soon be able to use their pronouns and name of choice at school, according to new guidelines from the Virginia Department of Education that school districts must adopt come September.
VDOE’s model guidelines were issued in March, a month bookended annually by International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31, a day to celebrate the transgender community and raise awareness about the discrimination the community faces.
The commemoration was founded in 2009 by Rachel Crandall-Crocker, a psychotherapist and executive director of Transgender Michigan, who said in a Wednesday column for the online LGBTQ magazine “Them” that she wanted the community to have more than the Transgender Day of Remembrance, observed annually on Nov. 20.
“I remember when I came out in 1997; I was very, very lonely,” Crandall-Crocker wrote. I wanted to create a day so we didn’t have to be lonely anymore.”
The VDOE created model policies that are inclusive of transgender and nonbinary students at the direction of General Assembly legislation passed in 2020.
The policies include allowing students to use bathrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities that conform to their gender identity. Students now have a right to dress with their gender identity or gender expression. Students are allowed to use gender pronouns and a name that reflects their gender identity without any substantiating evidence.
“The key guiding principle of the model policies is that all children have a right to learn, free from discrimination and harassment,” the policy states.
Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, a Richmond-based nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ equality statewide, said in an interview that these policies not only create a safe learning environment, but help to hold educators and administrators accountable, as students experience harassment and discrimination not only from peers but adults in their schools.
LGBTQ students in Virginia report hearing anti-LGBTQ remarks, including homophobic and negative remarks about someone’s gender expression, in school from both their peers and school staff members, according to education nonprofit GLSEN’s 2019 National Student Climate Survey.
About 59% of Virginia’s LGBTQ students reported experiencing at least one form of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, such as: not using the school bathroom or locker room that aligns with their gender, not using their chosen name and pronouns, not discussing LGBTQ issues in assignments and not incorporating LGBTQ themes into extracurriculars and public displays of affection, according to the survey.
Conducted every two years, the GLSEN surveys provide snapshots of issues related to gender identity. In the 2019 survey, 40 states had surveys conducted where in total 59.1% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 42.5% felt unsafe because of their gender expression and 37.4% because of their gender.
LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexuals peers, according to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ youth suicide prevention.
“Time and again, studies show us the policies that address LGBTQ students improve their overall well being … LGBTQ students have better attendance, higher academic outcomes [and] a greater sense of well being,” Lamneck said.
Over the past decade as Equality Virginia advocated for non-discrimination and anti-bullying school policies to include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, questions arose on how to create safer learning environments for nonbinary and transgender students, Lamneck said.
“Their heart was in the right place, but they did not have the tools and the information that they needed to make an informed decision,” Lamneck said. “On the other hand, we did see quite a significant amount of anti-LGBTQ pushback as well.”
On Tuesday, a faith-based conservative group filed a lawsuit challenging the new state guidelines, stating they allegedly “erase” parental rights and students’ rights to freely exercise their religion.
The Family Foundation of Virginia, the Founding Freedoms Law Center and Sarah Via, a parent from Hanover County, filed the lawsuit in Richmond City Circuit Court against VDOE and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.
The suit alleges the guidelines violate parental rights and that in a rushed process, the VDOE failed to adequately respond to public comments concerning that the policy violates the constitutional rights of students, parents and teachers. Because of this, the suit is asking for the court to send the guidelines back to the state for revisions and further review.
Lamneck said in a statement Tuesday that the lawsuit adds to the transphobia and misconceptions that transgender and nonbinary youth face.
“It’s unfortunate that this lawsuit continued to perpetuate misconceptions about transgender students, because at the end of the day, this policy, and its guidance actually is having an incredibly positive impact on the lives of transgender and non binary students,” Lamneck said in an interview.
Virginia school boards must adopt either policies consistent with the state’s model or more comprehensive ones by the start of the 2021-2022 academic year.
In the Richmond area, Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico public schools honor a student’s name, even if it hasn’t been legally changed, said Shannon McKay, president of He She Ze and We, a peer-to-peer support nonprofit for adult caregivers of transgender and nonbinary family members.
Calling a student by their name of choice helps them feel a sense of belonging at school and respect, said McKay.
“We know that a negative school experience not only hinders their academic growth but can also interfere with their overall well being and health and if you turn that around, making school inclusive, welcoming and safe to transgender students it will increase their overall health, well being and academic progress,” McKay said.
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