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Legal Battle Over Protections for Transgender Students Continues

The headquarters for the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia school districts are required to adopt policies regarding the equal and harassment-free treatment of transgender students ahead of the upcoming school year. Last year, Virginia lawmakers required the Virginia Department of Education to create model policies and required districts to adopt policies that were at least consistent with - or more comprehensive than - VDOE’s guidelines.

But some religious groups filed lawsuits earlier this year, seeking to delay the policies from going into effect. Separate lawsuits from the Family Foundation of Virginia and the Christian Action Network have been consolidated into one case in Lynchburg. Equality Virginia and the Virginia ACLU, along with 50 other groups and community leaders, are fighting back in court with a legal brief filed late last week.

“Courts have long recognized that separating students because of innate characteristics is harmful,” the brief states, citing Brown v. Board of Education. “The same type of harm Black children experienced as a result of school segregation now harms transgender students.”

Vee Lamneck, Executive Director for Equality Virginia, says the lawsuits from religious groups reinforce a narrative that transgender students are somehow less deserving of the same protections as everyone else in a public-school setting. 

“What we know is that transgender students face disproportionately higher rates of harassment, discrimination, violence and bullying in schools,” Lamneck said. “And there's plenty of data out there to show that.”

The legal brief Lamneck and others filed last week includes the stories of several transgender students from across Virginia, detailing the bullying they faced in school because of their gender identity.

“These families are incredibly brave, because we know that there are real concerns about safety and privacy. And yet, despite those very real concerns, they wanted to tell their family’s story to help prevent any other students from having the same experience that they did,” Lamneck said.

Marijean is the step-mom of G, a high school student in Charlottesville. We’re only identifying them as they were identified in the legal brief, for privacy concerns. Marijean says that students in the past have purposefully and repeatedly misgendered G as a form of bullying.

“We’d want to make sure that if we reported it, that action is taken,” Marijean said. “That it was made clear to a kid who is misgendering another kid that that’s a violation of the policy. There has to be consequences for that kind of behavior. That is bullying.”

Lamneck says that when supportive school policies are in place, bullying, harassment and discrimination goes down. 

“What's really powerful about this guidance is that it not only positively impacts transgender students, but also LGBTQ students as a whole. And actually, the entire student body as a whole,” Lamneck said. “Because at the end of the day, we're just talking about inclusion and respect, which I think we all can agree is really important in a public school setting.”

Although studies are inconclusive, experts largely agree that gender affirming environments may prevent psychological distress in transgender youth.

Neither the Family Foundation of Virginia nor the Christian Action Network responded to VPM’s request for comment by deadline, but the Family Foundation of Virginia’s website states that one of their key issues is “fighting the false ideology of ‘transgenderism’ in our schools and workplace,” and that the anti-harrassment polocies for transgender students cross the into “mandatory promotion of politicized, sexualized ideology.”

The language on FFV’s website makes Marijean angry and fearful.

“I find it really difficult to understand where they’re coming from, and even if they don’t know anyone [who doesn’t conform to one specific gender] and they don’t understand - do they really believe that our child should be forced to not play on a sports team with their peers or to use facilities that they’re uncomfortable in, or that they should fear for their safety at school of all places?” Marijean said. “Why would you do that to a child?”

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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