Ally is a verb: supporting Va.’s LGBTQ+ students

To be transgender in public schools means operating in discomfort. It means dreading roll call attendance. It means surviving, writes guest columnist Asher Maxey 

November 3, 2023 12:10 am

High school students across Virginia including those at McLean High School walked out in protest of the governor’s revised transgender student policies on Sept. 27, 2022. Pictured is a student holding a rainbow flag. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

We are nearly through the first semester, with Thanksgiving break around the corner. This year, Virginia students and teachers have had to bear in mind new policies – policies that have divided communities. Unfortunately, barriers and biases against transgender and nonbinary youth have persisted in the ongoing debate as to whether they have a right to belonging and inclusion within educational institutions at all levels. Yet, it is an issue that these students have little to no say in. 

Despite transgender and nonbinary youth only accounting for 1.18% of Virginia’s population, there were 12 anti-trans bills introduced during the 2022 legislative session. These bills ranged from barring transgender and nonbinary students from participating in school-sponsored sports teams congruent with a student’s gender identity, to forcefully outing students. As a transgender student, I am concerned for my peers because I know the real impact of these bills. 

To be transgender in public schools means operating in discomfort. It means fearing how your friends will react when you tell them. It means feeling anxious to come to school every day. It means dreading roll call attendance. It means fearing for your safety. It means avoiding risks. It means surviving. 

In September 2022, the Youngkin administration announced an updated draft of Virginia public schools’ policy for transgender students. Previously, Virginia public schools had been operating under model policies released by the Virginia Department of Education during Governor Ralph Northam’s tenure. These policies adhered to nondiscrimination laws and acknowledged ways in which LGBTQ+ students could be better supported, as advised by psychologists. All local school boards were required to adopt policies consistent with these model policies for the 2021-2022 school year.

For me, the 2021-2022 school year was my senior year of high school. I was one of the few transgender students that I knew in Franklin County, Virginia. Of my peers, I had by far received the greatest amount of support and gender-affirming care. In fact, I was among the slim minority of trans youth in Virginia with family support, access to mental health resources and access to gender-affirming care. According to the 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health by State conducted by the Trevor Project, “57% of transgender and nonbinary youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it” and only “38% of LGBTQ youth identified home as an LGBTQ-affirming space.” I had experienced firsthand how life-saving this care was and I was looking forward to my future for the first time in a long time. 

During July 2021, as students were enjoying their summer break, Franklin County and surrounding areas began to discuss the new policies. While the public comments were at times dehumanizing and brutal, the unity and support of allies was undeniable. I even had a former teacher who made a public comment condemning the hateful rhetoric towards trans and nonbinary youth. Perhaps the most revolutionary change that came from this meeting was a new gender-inclusive, single-stall restroom. Considering I spent the first three years of my high school career with only one restroom on an eight-building campus, this change was invigorating. 

Devastatingly, the new model policies rescind the progress that the previous model policies implemented. Youngkin’s policies, known as “Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students in Virginia’s Public Schools,” require that students are addressed by the name that is present in the student’s official records as well as the pronouns that correlate to the student’s sex assigned at birth. These new policies only allow exceptions to be made with consent from a student’s parents. Not only are these policies intrusive, but they are personally detrimental to transgender and nonbinary students. For those who do not have supportive or accepting parents/guardians, this sort of overstep is potentially harmful. These policies seem to be detached from the reality of what it is like to be a transgender student, which is not surprising considering the draft was absent of public input, despite thousands of comments in opposition

Furthermore, the updated model policies and similar anti-trans bills create additional responsibilities for teachers and staff. These policies assign teachers the new responsibility of scrutinizing their students’ identities. Implications from these policies insist that public schools insert themselves in student-parent relationships. Beyond establishing a concerning precedent, teachers’ morals are disregarded. Kimberly Irvin, a current Roanoke public school teacher weighed in on the matter, telling me in an email: “For teachers like myself, these policies violate my belief system that all humans deserve equal and fair treatment, to include the right to be called by a preferred name and recognized by pronouns with which they best identify.”

Organizations such as the Lean in Project, based in Southside Virginia, and Voices for Virginia’s Children, based in Richmond but serving the state, are among many of the amazing groups protecting transgender youth like me. Equality Virginia shares their “candidate scorecards,” making it even easier to know how candidates have supported and voted for (or against) LGBTQ+ students and youth.

With no say in the matter, students need help from voting Virginians to have their voices heard. Allies can support political candidates who are prepared to support all students. Allies can also volunteer for community initiatives that support LGBTQ+ youth. There are opportunities now to oppose harmful legislation and to show your support through action.

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Asher Maxey
Asher Maxey

Asher Maxey is a 19-year-old youth advocate and sophomore at Virginia Tech majoring in Statistics. Asher champions empathy and transparency in his advocacy for equitable policy reform for the LGBTQ+ community. In his spare time, Asher enjoys listening to music and playing basketball.