A new Virginia model policy that rolls back freedoms for transgender students will be harmful for the mental health and safety of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students at school, as well as the broader LGBTQ student body, health experts warn.
The model policy introduced by Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin last week asks teachers and other school employees to only refer to students by their legal name and sex assigned at birth unless a parent files a written petition to allow their child to change their pronouns. Even in that case, the legal name and sex “shall not be changed” on school records, the model policy says.
The policy also says a school can’t instruct teachers to hide information about a student’s gender identity from their parents. Finally, it requires transgender students to use bathrooms and play on sports teams aligned with their sex assigned at birth as opposed to their gender identity.
A transgender student is defined by the policy as “a public school student whose parent has requested in writing, due to their child’s persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs with his or her sex, that their child be so identified while at school.”
“Probably to me, the most concerning piece of it also is that, you know, it requires almost a forced outing of students to their parents,” said Eden Heilman, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
“So trans students, who potentially might be at risk of both physical and emotional abuse at home or homelessness, now potentially may be facing even more risk at home, because this policy requires that parents be made aware,” Heilman added.
The model policy delivers a message to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming kids that they don’t matter, said Stephen Forssell, a professor in the psychological and brain sciences department at George Washington University and director of the university’s LGBT Health Policy and Practice Program.
“When things like this happen, they give license to violent acts, not just against trans kids, but [against] kids who are members of the broader community,” he said. “We do see increases in hate crimes and harassment of the members of the community when these sorts of bills are passed. And it basically says your state thinks you’re not worthy of being protected.”
Students were already concerned about anti-trans bills
The vast majority of transgender and nonbinary youth are concerned about the anti-trans bills and policies being proposed across the country, according to the Trevor Project’s 2022 Mental Health Survey. The nonprofit surveyed almost 34,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 across the United States.
Because of state or local laws, 93 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said that they have worried about access to gender-affirming medical care, 91 percent are worried about their ability to use bathrooms of their choice, and 83 percent about their ability to play sports, according to the survey.
Over the past year, Republican lawmakers in 18 states, including Arizona, Idaho, and Texas have passed laws banning trans students from participating in sports aligned with their gender identity, specifically trans boys wanting to play on girls’ teams. Three states—Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Alabama—also have bans on students using school facilities aligned with their gender identity.
Florida also passed legislation outlawing classroom discussions of gender and sexual identity, which prompted copycat bills across the country. In Alabama, offering gender-affirming care such as prescribing puberty-blocking medication or surgeries is a Class C felony, according to a law passed in 2022.
How Virginia’s proposal differs
But not many states have passed model policies through the department of education requiring districts to adopt guidelines that combine restrictions on sports teams, bathrooms, and pronoun use.
Earlier this month, the Grapevine-Colleyville district in Texas passed a broader version of Virginia’s model policy that includes a ban on discussion of “gender fluidity” in addition to all the other guidelines listed by Youngkin’s administration.
“I think one of the things that makes Virginia a little bit unique in this space is that we had a good policy, and now we’re rolling back a good policy,” Heilman said.
The 2022 model policy rolls back many of the provisions from the 2021 model policy, which was introduced by Youngkin’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, to comply with a 2020 state law. The prior model policy was much more inclusive and allowed transgender students to use bathrooms and play on teams of their choice.
“The previous policies implemented under the Northam administration did not uphold constitutional principles and parental rights, and will be replaced,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter.
“It is not under a school’s or the government’s purview to impose a set of particular ideological beliefs on all students. Key decisions rest, first and foremost, with the parents.”
The “parental rights” angle has often been used by several right-wing advocacy groups and Republican lawmakers to promote anti-LGBTQ legislation, and groups such as The Family Foundation have welcomed Virginia’s proposed changes. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for example, is formally titled the Parental Rights in Education bill.
“I think that that term has been co-opted to speak for a very small number of parents who want to impose their beliefs on other people,” Heilman said. “The reality of it is, the vast majority of parents want their children to be treated like humans and their peers to be treated like humans.”
Parental rights was a winning message during Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign, according to Forssell of George Washington University.
“This is a very, very trite kind of thing compared with kids getting beaten up and abused and made to feel like, you know, subhuman people,” he said. “Parents’ rights to be bigoted or to enforce their religious views on other people, clearly is not as important as the mental health and, frankly, the safety of kids in these schools.”
State officials say that’s not so. The document makes it clear that “any kind of discrimination, any kind of harassment of students for any reason is something that is not to be tolerated in the public schools of Virginia,” said state department of education spokesman Charles Pyle.
However, there is not much wiggle room for interpretation in the guidelines to allow school boards to pass a version that doesn’t restrict the rights of transgender students, according to Forssell. The 2020 law requires all 132 Virginia districts to pass their own policies that are along the same lines or are even more comprehensive. However, there’s no enforcement mechanism outlined in the model policy so it’s unclear if districts will refuse to comply.
The ACLU of Virginia has been hearing from some districts that they’re concerned about implementing any version of the model policy.
“I think a lot of teachers and administrators and school boards are very concerned about the rights of their students,” Heilman said, “and also what might happen if they follow this, and then they could possibly be in conflict with federal law and how to deal with those issues.”
Virginia’s model policy comes as proposed changes to the federal Title IX law seek to broaden the definition of sex-based harassment and discrimination to include gender identity and sexual orientation.
People may submit public comments on the model policy for a month starting Sept. 26, and then Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, appointed by Youngkin, may amend the final draft of the policy based on the comments, Pyle said. The state school board will not have to vote on the model policy.