The Pride Liberation Project strongly opposes the Department of Education’s draft revisions to the model transgender policies.
We are an entirely LGBTQIA+ student-led organization based in Virginia that mobilizes students in local and state civic systems. We are also the group that organized walkouts of 12,000+ students across Virginia on September 27th in opposition to the draft revisions to the model transgender policies.
In the last two years, highly politicized rhetoric has surrounded our education system. This rhetoric obscures those most affected: Virginia students. We are tired of attending schools that do not safeguard equity, protect our mental health, and ensure equal opportunity for all. It is a poor reflection of leadership that the Governor’s administration neglects these student concerns and pursues policies driven not by student input, but by political polls in primaries. We hope that the administration revokes these revisions, and we are submitting this comment with the intention of highlighting the devastating effect specific provisions in these revisions have on transgender, Queer, and straight students in Virginia.
Discussions about Queer students should be guided by an acknowledgment that we are disproportionately impacted by the mental health crisis. In 2022, 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide and 58% of LGBTQ youth experienced symptoms of depression (1). Virginia students are not exempt from this crisis: a majority of Virginia LGBTQIA+ students experience some form of harassment (2). In Fairfax County, for example, LGBQ youth were significantly more likely to experience abuse, depression, and high stress compared to non-LGBQ youth (3).
Conversations about our lives should also acknowledge that many of us lack the typical support structures that a student has. 60% of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it, and over 60% of Queer youth do not find their home affirming (4). In the absence of these typical supports, many of us rely on our schools. Only a slight majority of Queer youth find schools LGBTQIA+ affirming (5). One closeted student from Loudoun County put it best: “At home, I’m worried to leave my room and try to avoid my parents as much as I can because they constantly comment negatively about Queer people. At school though, I can just be myself.”
Given the unequal learning environment that LGBTQIA+ students face, it is imperative that our policymakers take action to safeguard our rights and protect our mental health. Unfortunately, the draft model transgender policies do not meet this standard, and instead, ignore evidence-based best practices.
The definition of a “transgender student” outlined in these documents is not evidence-based. The draft guidelines state that a transgender student “shall mean 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 from his or her sex, that their child be identified while at school.” The existence and identity of transgender students — or any human being — should not be tethered to a written note sent by a parent. A recent student from Arlington County Public Schools emphasized the dehumanizing effect of the DOE’s definition: “I find it extremely dehumanizing for my identity to be relegated to a piece of paper. My identity isn't a field trip consent form. It is a deeply personal part of me that shouldn’t be dictated by the government.” Our education leaders should instead use definitions supported by medical experts, such as the American Psychological Association, which defines transgender as “an umbrella term used to describe the full range of people whose gender identity and/or gender role do not conform to what is typically associated with their sex assigned at birth” (6).
These guidelines also assume that every parent is acting in a student’s best interests. Unfortunately, LGBTQIA+ young people are disproportionately impacted by abuse, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness. In fact, 20% of LGBTQ+ adults have experienced homelessness before they turned 18 (7), and almost 28% of LGBTQ+ youth have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity (8). The leading cause of this homelessness is “family rejection resulting from sexual orientation or gender identity” (9). There are a number of provisions in these guidelines that empower abusers and hurt students. For example, the revisions state “school personnel shall keep parents fully informed about all matters that may be reasonably expected to be important to a parent, including, and without limitation, matters related to their child’s health, and social and psychological development.” These revisions can be read to require teachers with no awareness of a student’s home life to forcibly out the sexual and gender identity of all students, without a student’s consent. More explicitly, these draft guidelines prohibit school divisions from “encourag[ing] or instruct[ing] teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.” Simply put, these draft revisions force teachers to out a student, regardless of that student’s wishes.
The forced outing provisions will have a chilling effect on LGBTQIA+ students. Multiple students rely on schools to access supportive structures that are unavailable at home, which is strongly associated with positive mental health outcomes. Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having at least one gender-affirming space, for example, had 25% reduced odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year (10). This type of support is crucial, given the unequal mental health outcomes that LGBTQIA+ students face. In the words of a Loudoun County Public Schools student, accessing support at school saves lives: “Because my school wouldn’t out me, I was able to just be myself and find a supportive community at a time when I was struggling with my mental health and suicidal thoughts.” By forcibly outing students, these guidelines relegate students back to the closet and deny them access to crucial support.
These draft guidelines also effectively prevent a student from using their correct pronouns and name. First, they require parents to consent to any student’s names and pronouns. All Queer students wish they were in the position to safely share their actual name, pronouns, and gender identity with their parents. Yet, as mentioned earlier, some students unfortunately cannot. Consequently, these guidelines force students from unsupportive homes to continue to use their deadnames and incorrect pronouns if they are unable to safely obtain consent from their parents. Students are not vessels of their parents, and the state should not deny any student their ability to exist as a Queer person.
However, parental consent isn’t enough. These guidelines state “a [School Division] shall change the legal name or sex in a student or former student’s official record only if a parent or eligible student submits a legal document, such as a birth certificate, state- or federal-issued identification, passport, or court order substantiating the student or former student’s change of legal name or sex.” In other words, even if both a student and parent wish for a student to be addressed by their correct pronouns and legal name, they would still be required to legally change their name. The legal name change process is incredibly onerous. According to § 8.01-217, changing your name as a minor requires both parents to be notified and presented with an opportunity to object, even if a parent no longer contributes to a child’s upbringing or was abusive.
These guidelines also take away valuable tools to combat bullying against nonbinary and transgender students. Under this proposal, “schools cannot require students to refrain from malicious misgendering.” Consequently, if a student was intentionally, repeatedly, and maliciously misgendering and deadnaming a transgender or gender Queer student, the school would be powerless to stop that student and build a safe school environment.
Moreover, the draft revisions deny the existence of gender-neutral pronouns: “[School Division] personnel shall refer to each student using only the pronouns appropriate to the sex appearing in the student’s official record - that is, male pronouns for a student whose legal sex is male, and female pronouns for a student whose legal sex is female.” This ignores the reality that gender-neutral pronouns exist. More than a quarter of Americans now know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns (11), and the American Psychological Association has adjusted its language guidelines to include gender-neutral pronouns (12). As a student in Fauquier County explained, using gender-neutral pronouns is a fundamental part of who they are: “As a person who exists outside of the gender binary, my pronouns are how I feel best represented and respected. When I go to school and someone uses my correct pronouns, I feel infinitely more welcomed and better equipped to learn.”
In effect, these proposed guidelines make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for a student to be addressed by their correct name and pronouns. The denial of a student’s right to use their correct pronouns and name is incredibly harmful. Multiple Queer students in Virginia have expressed that using their correct name has improved their mental health. One student in Fairfax County, for example, explained that being addressed by their correct pronouns and the name “saved their life” as it made them “feel like a full human being.” Another student in Fauquier County said “using my correct pronouns significantly improved my mental health and is key to making me feel welcomed in my classroom." Their experiences aren’t unique. Using a student’s chosen name lowers depression rates, and is associated with a 29% decrease in suicidal ideation and a 56% decrease in suicidal behavior (13). Consequently, it is exceptionally cruel for the DOE to propose so many mechanisms to deny a student the right to use their correct name and pronouns.
Furthermore, the new model transgender policies requires that “students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.” This language directly contradicts federal law, which clearly states that students have the right to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The state’s language is intentionally confusing and encourages localities to implement policies that violate the spirit of federal law. These policies have no positive safety effect, with one study noting that the bathroom bans are “not related to the number or frequency of criminal incidents in these spaces” (14). However, 85 percent and 60 percent of transgender young people denied access to bathrooms experienced suicidality and depression, respectively (15). As one Henrico transgender student put it, denying transgender students access to the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity only hurts students: “Denying me access to the restroom denies my identity’s existence. It’s deeply hurtful to be told that I’m a threat to other students, even though I am just using the bathroom.”
The revisions also require “overnight travel accommodations, locker rooms, and other intimate spaces used for school-related activities” to “be based on sex.” Banning a student from using facilities that align with their gender identity does not benefit any student. It creates an uncomfortable experience for non-transgender students, who are compelled to share facilities with students whose gender identities they may be learning about for the first time. It also forcibly outs transgender students who may have successfully transitioned and kept their gender experience private. Stigmatizing these students by placing them in a facility different from their gender humiliates and further isolates them. As the American Medical Association notes, it leaves them vulnerable to abuse, harassment, and even health problems, as students avoid bathrooms and locker rooms (16).
Similarly, these guidelines ban transgender athletic participation outright. This ban defies the will of the General Assembly, which rejected a transgender athlete ban, SB 766, in the 2022 legislative session. This ban also has “no basis in science” and rejects medical consensus (17, 18).
These guidelines don’t just target LGBTQIA+ students. For example, the new draft policy removes language in the previous model policies that required schools to end “segregat[ion] by gender to the extent possible.” No student benefits when mandates to minimize gender segregation are removed. Moreover, the new guidelines prohibit schools from conducting research into “sex behaviors and attitudes” without parental consent, potentially ending anonymous surveys that collect aggregated data on risky behavior, such as the Fairfax County Youth Survey. Policy-makers cannot effectively craft solutions to minimize risky behavior if they are unable to identify the scope of a problem. Finally, these new guidelines may prohibit any student from “participat[ing] in any counseling program to which the student’s parents object.” Not only was such a proposal explicitly rejected by the General Assembly last year (HB 1034), but students are already experiencing extraordinarily high rates of mental health problems. Current U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said "even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade” (19). In this time of crisis, we should be expanding mental health access — not limiting it.
Taken together, the new model transgender policies represent an unprecedented roll-back of Queer student rights in our Commonwealth. They attempt to erase our existence, leave us vulnerable to abuse and depression, and deny us the opportunity to thrive in our schools. Too many of us have had to assist friends who are close to ending their lives in the early hours of the morning, worried about whether we would have a place to sleep if our parents found out that we were Queer, or faced slurs as we attempted to learn. But these guidelines are blind to that reality, and instead, attack our community. Virginia students will not stand for the state’s attempt to hurt us. The 12,000 students who walked out of class on September 27th did not just demonstrate for themselves, but for the countless other young people who cannot because they come from unsupportive homes. We walked out because we believe Queer students don’t have to face ostracization, bullying, homelessness, abuse, and depression because of who we are, but instead, attend affirming schools that allow us to grow, learn, and thrive.
We sincerely hope the DOE listens to Virginia’s students and revokes these guidelines.
https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/data/sites/data/files/assets/documents/youth%20survey/lgbq%20-%20fcys%2019.pdf. Please note the survey does not measure transgender students.