Thousands of high school students from throughout Virginia staged walkouts either during or following their classes Tuesday to protest the proposed changes to official state policy to limit schools’ abilities to support transgender and other gender non-conforming students. Students from over 90 schools, including three dozen in Northern Virginia, took part.
The walkouts were coordinated under the auspices of the Pride Liberation Project, which describes itself as “a student-run group of Queer students and allies in Virginia who advocate for the empowerment of the LGBTQIA+ community.” It says it has “led campaigns to pass inclusive regulations and restore Queer literature, lobbied and testified in the General Assembly, and even published multiple op-eds in the Washington Post,” and its website encourages supporters to join its efforts.
According to State Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, the state’s highest elected openly LGBT person, the thousands of students who walked out of their classrooms were in opposition to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposed “model policies” for the treatment of transgender students. “The governor’s decision to enact cruel policies is affecting students across the Commonwealth, and we must add our voices to theirs in opposing the proposed policies,” Ebbin stated.
The City of Falls Church School Board has already been one of the swiftest in the state to react against Youngkin’s move with a statement published in full in last week’s News-Press. It was a joint statement by F.C. School Board chair Laura Downs and Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan. In it, they stated, “The FCCPS School Board wants to assure our community that we value and support every student in our charge…We are committed to following the Virginia Human Rights Act and settled law…which requires respect for the gender identity of transgender students just like any other student in FCCPS.”
They added, “We believe all students deserve a community that promotes inclusion and celebrates authenticity and we assure you that FCCPS will maintain consistency with settled law and our adopted non-discriminationa and anti-harassment policies.”
In addition, Falls Church’s state delegate Marcus Simon, in fact the author of legislation in Richmond earlier this month to counter Youngkin’s move, wrote the News-Press this week, the following:
“As the Chief Patron of HB145, the bill that mandated the Department of Education issue model policies for the treatment of transgender students, I can tell you the policies proposed by Governor Younkins Department do not meet the letter on the spirit of that law. The policies, if enacted, would not only violate the civil rights of trans students, they would be extremely harmful to their mental health and physical well being.
“Today, in light of the now 10s of thousands of public comments, the overwhelming majority of which are in opposition to replacing the existing model policies, I have called on the governor to rescind the 2022 guidance document and encourage him to leave the model policies adopted in 2021 in place.
“I hope that the governor will realize his mistake and reverse course. The model policies his Department of Education have published are not evidence based, are not best practices, and are not in compliance with state and federal law. Rather, they are a cynical political ploy intended to keep a small and vocal element of his far right wing base animated and motivated going into the 2022 midterm elections.
“I stand in solidarity with the thousands of students who walked out in support of their trans and gender expansive schoolmates today. We can not allow Virginia to be pulled backward.”
A public comment period for these proposed policies is now open and runs through October 26th. Citizens have been urged to submit comments asking the governor and the Virginia Department of Education to rescind the proposed policy on the state’s comment page (bit.ly/3AE2qH1J).
Youngkin’s new “model policies,” Ebbin wrote, are in flagrant violation of Virginia law, and will do serious harm to transgender students.” He added, “They are not based in science or compassion and will lead to students being outed before they are ready, increased bullying and harassment of marginalized youth, and will require students to jump through legal hoops just to be referred to with their proper name.”
Fairfax County Public Schools said last week that it was “reviewing” the proposed policies and reiterated a commitment to supporting LGBTQ students.
At West Potomac High School in Belle Haven, an estimated 1,000 students walked out at 10 a.m. in protest. They filed into bleachers on the football field, while speakers shared their experiences and why they personally would be affected by the new policies.
“As a trans [person], I have been discriminated against for my gender identity and was told it was wrong. That I was wrong,” said a West Potomac High School senior. “These policies are just a new case of this happening.”
“Most of my friends are transgender and my sister is also transgender. So it affects people I love,” said Mara Surovell of West Potomac High. And I don’t want any of my friends to feel like school is an unsafe place,” Surovell told Fairfax Now. “I don’t want to see…their mental health plummet because of these policies, and I really just want them to feel safe and loved, and I don’t think that’ll happen if these policies get approved.”
It’s well documented that transgender youth struggle more often with their mental health. A survey from May found that nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth have considered attempting suicide in the past year.
Rayan Afif, who organized the Marshall High walkout, said, if adopted, the guidelines would “ruin the relatively safe environment” they have at school. While most of their teachers use their name and some use their pronouns, that isn’t the case at home.
“Once the revisions are in place, everything will change. I will be forced to use a name and pronouns that do not align with me,” they said. “Additionally, if my parents are contacted due to any suspicion that I am queer, it could cause more tension in my family environment.”