Thousands of high school students walked out of classrooms across Virginia on Tuesday to protest a plan by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin that critics say aims to repress transgender youth amid growing nationwide GOP-led attacks on LGBTQ+ rights.
Chanting "trans rights are human rights," "DOE, let us be," and other slogans, students at scores of schools took part in demonstrations calling for the rejection of model Virginia Department of Education policies proposed earlier this month by Youngkin that, if approved, would force schools to categorize pupils according to scientifically dubious notions of "biological sex."
The proposed changes would reverse existing trans-affirming guidelines that some students have credited with saving their lives. In what some opponents have called another attempt to erase trans people, the proposal limits the definition of "transgender student" to someone "whose parent has requested in writing, due to their child's persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs with his or her sex, that their child be so identified while at school."
"We're walking out today to make it clear to @GovernorVA that students can't learn if we're worried about abuse, harassment, depression, and our rights," the advocacy group Pride Liberation Project, which organized the walkouts, said on Twitter. "All we want is to be able to learn in an inclusive school that [lets] us thrive like every other student."
\u201cIt's not even 11 AM, and 1000+ students have walked out across Virginia. \n\nReject these proposed guidelines.\u201d— Pride Liberation Project (@Pride Liberation Project) 1664290372
Pride Liberation Project organizer Nat Sanghvi told Teen Vogue that "as a minority student... I've found that schools can be some of the most safe places for people like me, and my initial reaction was just sheer shock" when she learned about Youngkin's proposal.
"It's harming students," the 17-year-old said of the model policies. "It's a clear attack at LGBTQI+ students across the state of Virginia. And if this does get [approved], it will impact every single student in Virginia."
Others expressed solidarity with the protesting students, with one parent tweeting, "Virginia is for lovers, not for haters," a riff on the commonwealth's longtime tourism and travel slogan.
The abortion rights group REPRO Rising Virginia tweeted that Tuesday's walkout "once again proves the collective power that young people have. They are a VITAL part of our movement and should be treated as such!"
\u201cMcLean High School students in Northern Virginia chant \u201cD-O-E, Leave us be\u201d and \u201cTrans rights are human rights\u201d in protest of Gov. Glenn Youngkin\u2019s model policies for transgender students.\u201d— Nathaniel Cline (@Nathaniel Cline) 1664290180
Josh Throneburg, a self-described "Christian progressive" running as a Democrat to represent Virginia's 5th U.S. Congressional District, blasted "Youngkin's cruel and regressive policies targeting trans youth."
"It is shameful to pin your political hopes on your willingness to harm an already marginalized group of kids," he tweeted.
Although entitled 2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia's Public Schools, critics say the proposed changes are meant to prevent the commonwealth's roughly 4,000 transgender students from participating on sports teams or using restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities that match their gender identity.
Under the proposal, any student name changes—including nicknames and even pronouns—must be approved by parents, while educators may refuse to call students by their preferred names if it violates their beliefs.
\u201c\ud83e\uddf5THREAD: 9 things you should know about the proposed anti-trans VDOE model policies.\n\nFirst, these policies are NOT about privacy, dignity, or respect. They are rooted in transphobia & seek to further harm trans and nonbinary kids.\u201d— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLU of Virginia) 1663946393
The model policies also suggest parents should be informed of a student's gender identity—even if the pupil does not consent—raising fears among some trans youth that they could be outed.
When asked in a recent interview what he would say to trans youth whose families who do not accept their gender identity, Youngkin replied, "I would say, trust your parents."
However, according to the latest survey conducted by the Trevor Project, an advocacy group, close to half of all LGBTQ+ youth considered ending their own lives, while 1 in 5 trans youth tried to kill themselves.
Legal experts say Youngkin's policies likely violate federal and state laws. In an interview last week with The Washington Post, employment and civil rights attorney Joshua Erlich said that the governor "is trying to pick a political fight by attacking trans students, but his model policies are in conflict with recent court rulings," which have determined that "discrimination against transgender individuals is illegal discrimination on the basis of sex."
In Bostock v. Clayton County, for example, conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, wrote for the majority that it is "clear" that the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employer discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
\u201cVirginia high school students are walking out of class to protest Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's plan to strip rights from transgender students.\u201d— The Recount (@The Recount) 1664291156
In another decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that a transgender boy could use the boys' restrooms in his school—a case the Supreme Court declined to hear on appeal.
University of Richmond School of Law professor Jack Preis told the Post that teachers might not even be aware of a student's "biological sex"—a term the directive does not define—due to ambiguous names or clothing.
"Privacy rights are going to prevent many teachers from even knowing whether or not they are teaching a trans student," said Preis, who also noted that the policies don't address intersex or nonbinary children. The latter may have U.S. passports or Virginia driver's licenses showing their gender identity.
Youngkin's model policies won't take effect until after a 30-day public comment period that began on Monday. As of early Tuesday afternoon, more than 20,000 public comments—most of them opposing the proposal—had been submitted.
\u201cToday\u2019s a good day to tell trans kids in #Virginia that they belong here because of who they are, not despite it:\nhttps://t.co/MYw4WmrKVG\u201d— Del. Danica Roem (@Del. Danica Roem) 1664203157
Some school districts reached out to students and parents ahead of Tuesday's walkouts. WTOP reports Loudon County parents received an email assuring them that their public school is a "safe place for students to exercise their freedom of expression."
"Students who choose to demonstrate will not be penalized," the email added.
Tuesday's protests occurred as legislatures and governors in Republican-controlled states have in recent years passed or proposed dozens of laws eliminating or limiting the rights of LGBTQ+—and especially transgender—youth, including restroom and sports bans.
In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott stoked fear, outrage, and resistance earlier this year when he ordered state officials to investigate gender-affirming healthcare as possible "child abuse."