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Va. killed bills aimed at trans youths. Here’s where the debate moves next.

Students at McLean High School in McLean, Va., walk out of classes Sept. 27. Student activists held school walkouts across Virginia that day to protest Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's proposed changes to the state's guidance on district policies for transgender students that would roll back some accommodations. (Matthew Barakat/AP) (AP)
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Lawmakers killed a host of bills aimed at transgender youths in the Virginia General Assembly this year, but with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed “model policies” still up in the air, advocates and lawmakers are certain this isn’t the last time they’ll see a debate over transgender education policies in the commonwealth.

A week before the session ended, Senate Democrats killed two bills, one that would have required students in public schools to compete in sports under the gender they were assigned at birth, and another that would have required school administrators to notify parents if a child identified as a gender different from their biological sex. Both bills survived a floor vote in the Republican-controlled House, marking the first time that measures targeting transgender youths have been passed by a Virginia legislative chamber.

The bills, along with about 10 others that failed in the state this session, are part of a national trend of increased legislation and targeting of trans youths. A Washington Post analysis found that in 2022, more legislation had been filed to restrict the lives of trans people than at any other point in the nation’s history. The bills are widespread and range from bathroom bans to restrictions on gender-affirming medical care.

Fran Hutchins, executive director of the Equality Federation, an organization that tracks LGBTQ legislation nationwide, said the group has been watching just over 270 bills targeting transgender people around the country. Many of them will be introduced multiple times, Hutchins noted, but the figure still represents a significant increase from previous years.

Most bills like these were unsuccessful last year, Hutchins said. Now, the challenges could take on different forms.

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Naomi Goldberg, LGBTQ program director and deputy director of nonpartisan think tank Movement Advancement Project, which has been tracking anti-LGBTQ policies since 2006, said that as bills fail at the state level, action may come at the school board level.

“We’re going to see potentially administrative action and ... model bills put forward as policies that school districts can adopt,” Goldberg said. “I’m also concerned that we’re going to see athletic associations that may not be governed by the state inherently taking up some of these policies.”

Virginia became a flash point in the conversation last year when Youngkin (R) issued new model policies for the state, a version of which all districts would have to adopt, requiring transgender students to access school facilities and programs matching the sex they were assigned at birth and making it harder for students to change their name or pronoun at school. The policies prompted more than 70,000 public comments, backlash from students and praise from supporters who saw them as the governor delivering on his campaign platform of parental rights in education.

With the model policies still under review and the rising attention, especially from GOP lawmakers around the country, groups both in support of and opposed to the bills said they doubt this will be the end of the road for legislation aimed at transgender students.

“This type of rhetoric and these types of laws will continue to come up, because there are people … like elected officials across the country who have been told that this is the issue that’s going to help them win,” Hutchins said.

Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative faith-based Family Foundation of Virginia, agreed that these conversations would be sticking around.

“I think parents have been clear that they’re not going to rest until they’re informed about their children’s well-being within the school,” Cobb said. “They’re going to continue to be an active voice.”

Del. David A. LaRock sponsored the bill that would have required school employees to notify a parent if a student is self-identifying as a gender different from the student’s biological sex in school. LaRock said the bill solidified his commitment to making sure that kids “are not prematurely pushed in a direction that they regret.”

While LaRock (R-Loudoun) said his bill was not introduced in coordination with Youngkin’s model policy, he was happy that they were aligned on many of the same issues, and he’s confident that these policies will continue to arise in Virginia, especially because voters respond to it.

“They’re kind of in a precarious situation,” LaRock said of Democrats. He said if they don’t change their views on these issues “they’re gonna pay for it in the election.”

Youngkin’s model policies were initially intended to go into effect in October, but were delayed after the Virginia Department of Education needed more time to review comments it received during a 30-day public comment window. There was talk of legal challenges, with opponents arguing that the policies violate the Virginia Human Rights Act, which protects individuals in public settings, including schools, from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and other traits.

“The guidance document won’t become final until after the review of public comment is complete and the department carries out its responsibility under the law to respond formally to any comments claiming that the guidance is contrary to law or regulation,” education department spokesman Charles Pyle said in an email.

Neither the education department nor Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter offered a timeline for when the review might conclude.

“The governor remains committed to empowering parents and restoring excellence in education, he will continue working on measures that meet that objective,” Porter said in an email.

Under the state’s current policies, which were enacted under Youngkin’s predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), and took effect in 2021, transgender students are granted access to restrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities that match their gender identity. The current guidelines also stipulate that schools let transgender students participate in school programs matching their gender identity and require that school districts and teachers accept and use students’ gender pronouns and identities.

But ACLU of Virginia Policy and Legislative Counsel Breanna Diaz said that the adoption of the current policies has been inconsistent across the state. And early reaction from school leaders indicating that they would push back against Youngkin’s policies leads them to believe adoption of those will also vary jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Last month, just days after the House passed the two bills relating to school sports and parental notification, more than 20 students spoke at a Virginia Beach City school board meeting, pleading for their representatives not to implement Youngkin’s proposed regulations.

“I’m at a point in my life where I’m completely comfortable with my name and gender identity, but these new model policies would rip that safety and stability away from me along with hundreds of other students,” a student who identifies as nonbinary said during public comment.

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Research suggests there are about 4,000 transgender students in Virginia, a state with 1.2 million public school students. Research has also shown that transgender youths are far more likely to attempt suicide, and LGBTQ advocates in Virginia said that even without the policies in place, it can be intimidating and threatening to LGBTQ students to see and hear lawmakers discussing their future.

“Even when these policies aren’t in place, like the model policies, or even when these bills haven’t even passed, or aren’t even signed into law, it’s causing harm,” said Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia.

Diaz, with the ACLU, said legislation and policies targeting transgender students will continue to be introduced around the country. There will also likely continue to be litigation raised on the policies that do pass, like cases in Idaho and Utah over restricting transgender athletes.

“We don’t know what the next session will hold. We don’t know what this administration will do,” Diaz said. “And so I think there is just this constant fear in the back of our minds of what’s next.”