As the elected school board for Virginia’s largest jurisdiction considers adding “gender identity” to its non-discrimination law, state and national anti-LGBT organizations are furiously working to oppose protections for transgender employees and students in Virginia schools, pushing transphobic claims of “shemales” in school bathrooms.
Last month, Stafford County, VA, made national headlines when its school board unanimously voted to ignore guidance from both school district officials and the Department of Education that “sex” protections under Title IX protect transgender students’ use of facilities that match their identified gender. After some local parents complained, the school board ordered that a fourth grade student no longer be permitted to use the bathroom of the student’s identified gender. The school system in Gloucester, VA, is currently facing a federal civil rights complaint after it restricted a transgender sophomore boy to using only a single-stall restrooms or designated female restrooms.
In light of these stories, the conservative Virginia Christian Alliance (VCA) has launched a statewide campaign to demand school systems deal with “transgenderism activity” and “gender identity confusion” as “a serious medical mental disorder.” In a letter sent to school boards across the Commonwealth of Virginia, the group’s chairman and president Donald N. Blake demanded to be “advised of any pending cases involving transgenderism that are presently before your school system” and the policies each system has in place to deal with transgender students. “Accommodation is not the answer,” he wrote, “nor is accommodation in the best interest of the child.” Though the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying being transgender as a mental disorder in 2012, the letter cites a 2014 article by anti-LGBT Johns Hopkins professor Paul McHugh that argued that “the idea of sex misalignment is simply mistaken” and that transgender people should be treated like those with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. McHugh’s widely debunked claims about trans identities run counter to consensus of the medical profession.
ThinkProgress obtained copies of the letters sent to local school superintendents under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The Alliance, which boasts of a board and advisory board of about 60 clergy members and activists and aligned ministries reaching “thousands and thousands” of constituents, promotes “sexual purity,” “god-ordained families,” “godly relationships,” and the impeachment of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) for his failure to defend Virginia’s unconstitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Multiple state legislators have contributed to the group, a former state GOP chairman sits on its advisory board, and its founders have ties to Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice and the Family Foundation of Virginia.
In a phone interview, Blake told ThinkProgress that VCA is partnering with a national conservative legal think-tank and will be distributing a proposed transgender policy for schools in the next few days. While they are focused on the effort nationally, he said, he believes Virginia “will be the first one, ground zero” for the push. He lamented that local school accommodations of transgender students “have not been made public.” “Once the public knows, the public school have the right to voice their opinion,” he said, noting that in Stafford and Gloucester, parents voiced “loud and clear that boys can’t use girls bathrooms, girls can’t use boys bathrooms.”
Blake said that VCA has been “told by well-informed legal counsel” that Title IX does not protect transgender students’ rights to access facilities and that it is “just a bullying tactic by the federal government and those who want to threaten and intimidate others to follow their agenda.” Still, he added, “I have a great deal of empathy for the parents, children and adults dealing with that,” and “want them to get help and treatment. [But] don’t normalize it.”
But despite this view, Virginia’s largest school system — the Fairfax County School Board — will vote next month on a proposal to add gender identity to their non-discrimination protections. Last month, Attorney General Herring issued an advisory opinion, overruling a 2002 opinion by then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) and affirming that elected local school boards “unquestionably” have the constitutional authority to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
At a school board meeting Thursday, parents, the student representative to the board, and the head of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers all spoke out in favor of the policy change. Speaking in opposition were two anti-LGBT state legislators from elsewhere in Virginia and Andrea Lafferty, a Fairfax resident and president of the Traditional Values Coalition. In her remarks, she warned that while she has “great compassion for those struggling with self hatred and gender identity issues,” this policy would allow “she-males, people who are half-female, half-male” in the classrooms. The Southern Policy Law Center has listed Lafferty’s group as a hate group since 2010.
In December, the Virginia High School League voted 25–0 to allow transgender student athletes across the state to participate in the sports team that corresponds with their gender identity. And school systems like Charlottesville already include sexual orientation and gender identity protections in their non-discrimination policies.
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, told ThinkProgress that Fairfax and other school systems moving to protect against discrimination are reinforcing safe-spaces for students and mirroring “what our leading corporations are doing across the state, realzing that giving safe and open spaces to LGBT employees to work creates a more productive workforce.” “It’s part of the modern economy,” he added, “and the majority of Virginians agree that you should not be fired or hired for how you identify.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the American Psychiatric Association.