‘Hecklers’ Veto’ Fails To Block Transgender Protections In Country’s 10th Largest School District

CREDIT: Twitter/InsideNOVA/Jill Palermo

Thursday night, the Fairfax County School Board, which oversees Virginia’s largest school system — and the tenth largest in the country — voted 10-1 with one abstention to approve adding “gender identity” to the district’s nondiscrimination policy, protecting transgender and gender nonconforming teachers, staff, and students. The favorable vote followed a boisterous evening as opponents crowded into the meeting and constantly interrupted board members as they spoke in support of the ordinance. Many conservative groups from outside the area had hoped to make Fairfax “ground zero” for opposing transgender protections.

ThinkProgress’ own Josh Israel, a Fairfax resident, was not only in attendance, but was one of ten speakers who had pre-registered to address the board. The ten speakers were split — five in favor of the policy and five opposed — but as Israel explained, about 90 percent of those in attendance were opposed to updating Policy 1450, the district’s nondiscrimination policy, wearing stickers that identified them as such.

Among the speakers who opposed the inclusive ordinance was an individual who claimed it was somehow racist against Black and Latino students because they are predominantly Christian. There was also a parent who claimed that transgender people are “mentally ill,” and thus affirming them would increase the student suicide rate. One slot, which had been reserved by a former school board member who was censured during his tenure for promoting “ex-gay” lessons in schools, was yielded to Casey Maddox, an attorney with the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom. He argued that there is no legal requirement to protect transgender children — a sentiment not shared by the Department of Education.

Though attendees were respectful of the public speakers, once the board started its deliberations, the situation deteriorated, as booing, heckling, and screaming drowned out the board’s discussions. “It was a crucible,” Israel described. “The anger in the room was palpable and first boiled over when Andrea Lafferty, head of the Traditional Values Coalition and one of the leaders against this policy, started screaming that more of the parents present should be allowed to voice their opposition.” When this proved fruitless, many in attendance simply chose to speak out of turn. At one point, Israel recalled, “One opponent yelled out that when a girl gets raped because of this policy, it was going to be on their hands.”

The board’s chair, Tamara Derenak Kaufax, did her best to maintain order throughout the night, assisted by several police officers who were on hand. Eventually, she threatened to clear the entire room if people couldn’t control themselves. Elizabeth Schultz, one of the two board members not backing the measure who unsuccessfully tried to postpone the vote until October, asked attendees to calm down so that they could be there to witness what was about to happen and act on it afterwards, but the initial calm this achieved didn’t last for very long. At least five people were removed from the meeting, and many more were warned that they might be removed as well.

Schultz suggested eliminating all classes from the nondiscrimination policy and simply replacing it with a two-word “don’t discriminate” rule. “The opponents present cheered this enthusiastically,” Israel explained, “but also gave her standing ovations when she warned that this policy would take away their right to discriminate against transgender teachers.” This was one of opponents’ talking points: parents should be allowed to remove their children from a classroom just because the teacher is transgender. Board Vice Chairman Ted Velkoff pointed out that parents don’t have this right even without the inclusive change.

When the vote finally took place, people hurled insults at the board and the policy’s supporters before storming out. Jarrod Nagurka, a Democratic campaign manager who supported the protections, tweeted that proponents were being called “gangsters.” Israel heard other cries, such as more claims that the policy was putting kids in danger, or complaints that the process was rushed, shameful, and lacking in transparency, a point he described as odd given the debate had just taken place at a public meeting. Though some were respectfully engaging in that debate from both sides of the issue, “the anger for many boiled over to the point where they were less ‘engaged citizenry’ and more ‘angry mob,'” essentially attempting to accomplish a “hecklers’ veto.” In fact, Israel said, “It was the first time in my life I circled my car before getting in to make sure that the tires weren’t slashed because of the HRC equality sticker on its bumper.”

School districts around the country have successfully implemented protections for transgender and gender nonconforming students and staff without any of the consequences opponents voiced. Though conservatives are still fighting it, the entire state of California has had “gender identity” protections in its schools for over a year now, though some of its districts’ policies date back over a decade.

Last year, the Virginia High School Association established a policy that creates a pathway for transgender students to participate equally in athletics, but not all Virginia schools are accommodating transgender students in an inclusive way. In Stafford County, school board members voted to keep a transgender elementary school student out of the bathrooms she had been using without incident. Meanwhile, a Gloucester High School student has filed a civil rights complaint challenging a policy requiring transgender students like him to either use single-stall bathrooms or facilities assigned to their biological gender.

Ryan McElveen, the Fairfax School Board member who introduced the update to Policy 1450, proclaimed, “Our board will be remembered not for postponing, not for delaying civil rights but for protecting all of our employees and all of our children.” A statement from Chair Kaufax said that the policy will ensure everyone in the district is treated “with dignity and respect.”