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Students stage walkouts across Virginia over governor's transgender school policies

Gov. Glenn Youngkin rewrote Virginia’s model policies for the treatment of transgender students, sparking student-led protests throughout the state.

Students across Virginia protested Tuesday in response to new guidelines putting restrictions on transgender students in the state’s public schools.

Walkouts are set to take place throughout the day at more than 90 middle and high schools in the state, according to student-run advocacy group Pride Liberation Project, which organized the statewide effort. As of noon on Tuesday, students in Woodbridge, Springfield, Manassas, McLean and other Virginia cities were waving rainbow picket signs and shouting, "Trans rights are human rights!"

“Trans students are students just like everybody else. We don’t want to be out here fighting for our rights and protesting — we want to be in calculus class and learning how to drive,” said Ranger Balleisen, a transgender senior at McLean High School in Fairfax County who helped organize the protests. “But, instead, we have to be here, because they’re trying to take away our rights.”

Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration rewrote Virginia’s model policies for the treatment of transgender students, mandating that all students use school facilities, including bathrooms or locker rooms, according to the sex they were assigned at birth. The policy revision also forbids trans students from changing their names and pronouns at school without a parent’s permission and discourages school staff from concealing students' gender identities from their parents, regardless of whether a student prefers to keep their transition a secret. 

Image: Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks during a news conference at the Capitol, in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 27, 2022.Steve Helber / AP file

Proponents welcomed the policy change, lauding the new measures for giving parents greater discretion over their child's schooling experience. Parental rights in education was a central issue of Youngkin’s campaign for the Virginia governorship last year and was largely credited with sweeping him to victory.

"Parents should be a part of their children’s lives, and it’s apparent through the public protests and on-camera interviews that those objecting to the guidance already have their parents as part of that conversation," Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Youngkin, said in an email. "While students exercise their free speech today, we’d note that these policies state that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment."

The new guidelines are a sharp reversal from policies enacted last year by Youngkin's Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam. Northam's guidelines said "school staff should abide by the student’s wishes" regarding names and pronouns. They also recommended that educators allow students to use school facilities, including bathrooms and locker rooms, that correspond with their gender identities. Additionally, the former rules advised that if a student did not want to share their gender identity with their family, "this should be respected."

Critics have said Youngkin's measures "put prejudice in front of progress" and have called them "discriminatory."

"When Barbara Johns walked out, people told her she should have stayed put too," Virginia state Del. Danica Roem, who in 2018 became the first out trans person to be seated in a U.S. state legislature, tweeted, referring to the late civil rights leader who is credited with helping push the Supreme Court to deem racial school segregation illegal. "Student voices matter and #Virginia students today are following in her footsteps — and I know a lot of PWC parents are super proud of their kids for speaking up."

Students have begun to walk out of Northern Virginia schools in protest of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed restrictions on transgender students’ rights.
Students have begun to walk out of Northern Virginia schools in protest of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed restrictions on transgender students’ rights.NBC News

When asked about the student walkouts at Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reaffirmed the president's commitment to the LGBTQ community.

“He believes transgender youth should be allowed to be able to go to school freely, to be able to express themselves freely, to be able to have the protections that they need to be who they are,” Jean-Pierre, who became the first openly LGBTQ White House press secretary earlier this year, told reporters.

Rivka Vizcardo-Lichter, a queer student at Oakton High School in Fairfax County and the lead organizer of the Pride Liberation Project, agreed. She added that since the new rules were drafted earlier this month, LGBTQ students across the state have turned to the group in distress.

“I’ve heard literally hundreds of stories telling me ‘I’m terrified for my own life,’” Vizacardo-Lichter said. “How are we supposed to focus on our classes — like calculus or biology — if we’re worried that our teachers are going to out us to our unsupportive parents?”

Vizcardo-Lichter, 15, added that the policies will exacerbate mental issues that disproportionately impact LGBTQ youths.

Nearly half of LGBTQ youths in the United States have “seriously considered” suicide in the past year, according a survey released earlier this year by LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization The Trevor Project. The same survey found that LGBTQ youth who found their school to be affirming reported lower rates of attempting suicide.

Youngkin's office stressed that the new guidelines direct schools to prevent gender discrimination or harassment against all students and “attempt to accommodate students with distinctive needs, including any student with a persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs from his or her sex.”

Casey Calabia, a trans senior at McLean High School in Fairfax County who also helped organize the statewide protests, called Youngkin's defense "tone deaf."

"How can you stand there and say that this is for trans students when trans students are actively telling you — and as well as our allies left and right, both in the Virginia government and outside of it — these are going to hurt a non-inconsiderable portion of Virginia's students?" Calabia asked, pointing to the protests.

The new guidelines are subject to a 30-day public comment period, which began Monday. Once the public comment period concludes, schools across the state will be required to adopt policies that are “consistent with” the new rules or “more comprehensive,” the document said.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 17,700 comments had been submitted.

CORRECTION (Sept. 27, 2022, 7:45 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated Rivka Vizcardo-Lichter’s role in the Pride Liberation Project. She’s the lead organizer, not the co-founder.

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