In Focus: Narissa Rahaman and Dr. Erica Anderson discuss school policies in Virginia for LGBTQ youth
In Virginia the debate about school policies regarding LGBTQ+ students continues to divide communities. VPM News’ Keyris Manzanares discusses these issues with Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia and Dr. Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist – who is a transgender parent and the former president of the U.S. Professional association for transgender health.
Transcript of the interview
KEYRIS MANZANARES: In Virginia, the debate about school policies versus parental rights continues to divide communities. One of the most controversial bills and this year's general assembly would have required that teachers notify parents if their child identifies as transgender in school. Joining us today to discuss this is Equality Virginia's director, Nerissa Rahaman and clinical psychologist Dr. Erica Anderson, who is a transgender parent and the former president of the US Professional Association for Transgender Health. She refers to herself as Dr. Erica. Dr. Erica, you've spoken out in support of parental notification. Why do you think it's important for teachers to notify parents if their children are having conversations about their identity?
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: Private conversations is one thing. But if the school has supported adopting a different name and different pronouns then parents know them by, that's what I'm concerned about. De facto that is supporting a social transition of a child at school from one gender to another. And there's no professional society in the world that recommends having social transitions be done without parents, I certainly cannot support that. And so, I've been speaking out saying, I want a collaboration between educators and parents around the issues with gender questioning youth. There are a lot of other controversies about gender questioning youth, which I speak about and write about elsewhere. But for now, what I'm concerned about is schools going their own way, and in effect, creating a double life for children, which is not to their benefit.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Narissa, what are your concerns about requiring notification?
NARISSA RAHAMAN: I first just want to say, you know, thank you so much for having me on today and allowing me to talk about the issues facing LGBTQ Virginians. You know, we're in a really critical moment fight now, as you mentioned, lawmakers this year, you know, introduced the most anti-LGBTQ bills in our, our legislative history. And all of these bills are wrong and it's, it's cynical, and it's a stark reminder of how tenuous our rights can be. You know, our main concern is, and let's be real, we wish that every child came from a supportive household. But we know for LGBTQ youth, that that's not always true. And whether and how to come out is a deeply personal decision that that should be respected. You know, if a young person does not feel safe, telling their family that they're LGBTQ, their school or teacher could be putting them at serious risk by disclosing that information. We absolutely want students, especially LGBTQ youth, to feel safe and affirmed in their school environment, it's where they spend a majority of their day. And we know that when we affirm identities and you know, create supportive environments for students, it can, you know, lead to academic success, and also has just long-term mental health benefits for these kids.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Dr. Erica, how can schools and parents best support students who have questions about their gender identity?
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: Well, schools and parents have a long history of collaborating together in the well-being of children. And that's my interest going forward, every child should get what they need. But the challenge here for situations where a child might make a social transition in terms of gender, and that's my narrow focus here and not just general supportive LGBTQ youth, where a child might be exploring a gender different than their parents understand them and ask the school to keep that from their parents I think this is a terrible idea. It sets up a rupture between children and parents. It potentially teaches children to be deceptive with their parents.
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: I understand Narissa's point, I myself am transgender. And I'm not oblivious to the fact that there are some households which are not supportive of LGBTQ youth and particularly trans youth, but to wholesale, adopt a policy that deprives parents of providing the support that we know is necessary for a child to succeed, who is gender questioning or gender variant, is a mistake. There are remedies for issues with parents. We have parent teacher conferences; teachers are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse so there are other avenues to use to deal with this. But I think creating a rupture between children and parents is a bad idea.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Narissa, what do you think is the best way to support students?
NARISSA RAHAMAN: You know, here in Virginia, several years ago, trans students, educators, parents, and other stakeholders came together to create a model policy that was evidence-based and provided best practices for educators and school personnel on how to best create a affirming learning environment for students. The goal of these policies was really to provide some protections for students at schools. The ultimate goal was to reduce bullying, and harm in schools. These were great policies, again, developed with a lot of stakeholders, I think the one thing that schools can do is make sure that these policies are in place, not just for the students, but really, for the educators, you know, these are teachers who already make difficult decisions every day about how to respond to student concerns and protecting their student's wellbeing. And that's what these model policies were able to do.
NARISSA RAHAMAN: We've recently seen our governor attempt to rollback and reverse those policies that would really put LGBTQ youth at, you know, an increased risk for harm and bullying and discrimination. I will say that we're seeing, you know, forcing folks to comply with a one size fits all rule really just makes it harder for everyone involved. And, you know, it doesn't make things any easier, especially when we're thinking about sensitive situations, you know, for each individual, child.
NARISSA RAHAMAN: At the end of the day, you know, we know, and not only in the work that we do, but the conversations that we have with, with students, educators and parents that students thrive in school, when they have, you know, supportive, affirming policies, and when they have supportive and affirming adults in their lives, and that includes educators and school personnel. If a student, you know, sees their teacher as someone that they may not be able to trust, you know, that could really erode a relationship that's very important, and critical to that, that student's success at school. And that's true for our students, whether they're, they're LGBTQ or not.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Some critics say that advocating for parental rights and these gender issues is a veiled way, for the political right to disavow the LGBTQ plus community, rather than a true attempt to empower parents in supporting their children. It's becoming a political issue. I'm wondering how each of you sees this standoff, and what you think can happen to de-politicize this topic and foster true dialogue. Dr. Erica?
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: Thank you. I want dialogue to go on civil dialogue to go on, I want parents and teachers to be talking. Certainly, we have a long-standing history of educators collaborating with parents in the in the education of their children, in the health and well-being of their children. But parents ultimately have legal responsibility for their children. And they really cannot be cut out of the equation. It's one thing to have a private conversation between a teacher and a student. And it's another thing to, to adopt a different name and pronouns and do it throughout the school. But deprive parents of that knowledge. I'm not supporting that.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Narissa What are your thoughts on this?
NARISSA RAHAMAN: I'm here to share sort of what I'm hearing from Virginia families and students and teachers that we've had conversation with. But you bring up an important point about what we're seeing around the country. You know, we are facing the worst attack on LGBTQ dignity and humanity that we've seen in decades, and that includes here in Virginia. This year, around the country, and in previous cycles or legislative sessions as well. Anti-equality lawmakers have, you know, launched and unprecedented legislative assault on LGBTQ people in state legislatures across the country, including here in our own general assembly.
NARISSA RAHAMAN: We have already surpassed 2022 as the worst legislative session on record for introducing and enacting anti-LGBTQ legislation, and we are just in you know, this this first week of March, you know, so far around the country. Over 400 Anti LGBTQ bills have been introduced, I think it's important to say that, you know, these bills aren't driven by constituent demand. They're part of a coordinated effort driven by a very well-funded organizations, powerful interest groups and you know, promoted by a very, very tight network of anti-LGBTQ forces.
NARISSA RAHAMAN: These are groups like the Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, and focus on the family who often write and lobby for the passage of these bills that are carbon copy state to state. Here in Virginia, a lawmaker introduced a bill it was the exact same bill that was introduced a role several years ago in Idaho. The ultimate goal for these groups and what they tried to do is that they pedal in the fear, and they pit people against each other with the sole goal of marginalizing and punishing LGBTQ people, especially transgender children. We especially see this happening before big elections, which we have happening here in Virginia, in November, which is why we saw over 12 anti-trans bills introduced this year. And so, you know, we can talk all day about parental rights, we can talk about, you know, book bans, we can talk about content, parents feel are in materials. At the end of the day, there's only one goal for these, these bills, and that is to harm LGBTQ people.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Narissa, what can be done to ensure transgender rights in Virginia?
NARISSA RAHAMAN: We have made a lot of great strides over the past several years and in introducing protections for LGBTQ people. Just three years ago, Virginia was the first in the south to enact non-discrimination protections. You know, I think what needs to happen is that when we, when we better understand who LGBTQ people are, I think, you know, folks understand that we are a community that's deserving of, of rights and an equal protection as well. You know, LGBTQ people, they are our friends, our families, our teachers, or our doctors, our neighbors. And I think when, when folks understand who we are, you know, see us as human beings, you know, the goal, and the hope is that you wouldn't want to remove protections or rights from, you know, your friends or your family members. And so why would you want to do that for LGBTQ people?
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Dr. Erica, what are your thoughts on this?
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: Well, I support Narissa's comments. I am a transgender person and I have been the subject of discrimination so I know, very personally, how horrible it can be. I've done a lot of things in my career to try to rail against discrimination and to promote the rights and well-being, particularly transgender people, but LGBTQ people in general. Certainly, nondiscrimination laws are important, but I'm old enough to remember that this Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. And we still have discrimination in the United States, unfortunately. So it's going to be a long, a long road, a long struggle. I won't be, I won't be there to get to the mountaintop as someone else said. But I hope to see a lot of progress and the time I have remaining, and I am committed to it.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Dr. Erica, how do we de-politicize this issue, and encourage an open dialogue?
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: Well, like most of you, I suspect, I want more light, less heat. I want to have a civil discourse about the issues. I came on to speak about the narrow focus of schools and parents with regard to gender questioning kids. There are many aspects of this, some of which Narissa has addressed, which are really important. We do need to create safe schools, we do need to forge a working relationship between parents and children. We need to have policies that not only protect children, but also protect teachers who try to do the right thing for their students every day. I'm sympathetic to all of that.
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: I've been part of this dialogue for a long time. I've spoken out against the anti LGBTQ anti trans bills in state legislatures all over the country. So I'm in it, I'm in the fight. But I think what we have to do is talk through some of the issues that are coming up, including the whole notion of creating, potentially for gender questioning kids, a double life. I don't think that's to the advantage of kids and families. I've dealt with some families where that rupture has occurred and kids have gotten down the road with one life with a name and pronouns, a set of pronouns at school, another at home, and that's a horrible situation that takes up quite a bit of work to recover from that. I do not operate on the on the understanding that all parents are going to be non-accepting of LGBTQ youth, that's experience. I think most parents love their children. But navigating the issues from a public policy perspective is really, really important.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Dr. Erica and Narissa, I want to thank you both for joining us today for us to have this conversation together.
DR. ERICA ANDERSON: Thank you for having me.
NARISSA RAHAMAN: Thank you so much again.