For some transgender high school students in the Virginia suburbs, a school board decision Thursday could mean an end to death threats and the beginning of freedom to live openly as who they truly are.
But to some parents, adding two words to a nondiscrimination policy — “gender identity,” words intended to protect transgender students in the public schools — could be a reason to remove their children from school because of fears that allowing genders to mix in bathrooms and locker rooms could be a safety threat.
What began in March as an effort to protect transgender students and staff in Fairfax County schools has inspired a national debate on gender identity issues for children. It has also garnered opposition from Virginia lawmakers who see the proposal as overreach by a local governing body on an issue where no state law exists.
“The school board is trying to slip this baby through,” said Andrea Lafferty, president of the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition, noting that transgender expression “really is an act of self-hatred. That’s just a reality.”
If the new policy is approved, Lafferty said, she believes it could allow “she-males” to teach elementary school children. She said it would not be a stretch to believe the changes could lead to troubling bathroom situations and to boys and girls sharing locker room changing areas.
Keith Appell, the father of two daughters at Halley Elementary, said that approving the policy would be a “grave mistake.”
“If a transgender teacher is placed in my kid’s class, I have no recourse,” Appell said. “If I would like to remove my child from that class and put her in a class with a different teacher, I cannot do that because it would be akin to asking to have her moved from a teacher because they are African American or Hispanic. That’s scary. . . . It’s tough enough for a kid to process subtraction at six years old much less ‘Oh my teacher used to be a man and now she’s a woman.’ ”
But to a West Potomac High School sophomore born male who now identifies as transgender, the policy change could mean the freedom to feel comfortable walking around school in makeup, carrying a vintage Louis Vuitton purse and wearing a crop-top, his navel exposed.
“It’s my identity and not anyone else’s to decide,” said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said he identifies with aspects of both the male and female genders.
He said he feels more welcome shopping for eyeliner at Sephora than expressing himself openly in West Potomac’s hallways.
“In those instances, they don’t care about my gender or my sexuality,” he said. “It feels nice not to feel so ‘othered.’ ”
For a West Potomac senior who was born female and identifies as transgender, the policy change could protect other students from death threats she has received.
During a government class one day, the discussion covered gay rights in foreign countries and how in certain nations homosexuality is a crime that carries the death penalty.
“The kid behind me, he said, ‘That’s what we should be doing here,’ ” the student said. “In that moment I was just terrified. I thought to myself ‘That could be me.’ . . . I don’t think anyone should ever feel unsafe in a class because of something someone has said and have it go unquestioned.”
Dressed in jeans and boots, she said she grew up playing with action figures for boys. She said that she grew up hating dresses and skirts and that she now feels best decked out in a men’s suit and tie. She said she discovered her feelings about being transgender one day in 2012, scrolling through a glossary of terms related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Finally, I found something that fit me,” she said. “I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t weird. It was a thing, it was normal and it had a name.”
Across the country, 13 states and the District have laws that protect transgender students from discrimination, according to the Transgender Law Center. Some individual cities and school districts, such as in Austin, Tex., and Broward County, Fla., have policies protecting transgender students, even though neither state has similar laws.
In April 2014, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights released updated guidelines to the 1972 Title IX civil rights law highlighting that the nondiscrimination clause “extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
In some cases where schools are found to have failed to comply with Title IX, the Education Department may terminate federal funding. The Fairfax school system receives $42 million, or 1.7 percent of its annual budget, from the federal government.
Fairfax County School Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large), who proposed adding gender identity to the district’s policy, said the administration decided to add protections for transgender students after the release of an opinion by Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D). Herring wrote in March that school boards have the authority to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
The board voted 11 to 1 in November to include sexual orientation in its policy after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand rulings that allow gay marriages in Virginia and other states.
McElveen said the policy is about “supporting everyone in our community no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation or gender identity. I think it’s critical that we teach kids at a young age that they should be accepting of everyone.”
Robert Rigby, a Latin teacher at West Potomac who is the faculty adviser of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said students have led a wave of social change.
“Being out and taking risks and being brave,” Rigby said. “They’ve changed the hearts and mind of the adults in the school system.”
Rigby credits one of his former students who was gay, Brian Picone, “with making my school safer to be out in.” Before Picone died of cardiac arrest in 2009, he was known as the ebullient male cheerleader with painted nails.
“He pushed the boundaries of gender expression,” Rigby said.
Alexis Nobrega, 18, president of the West Potomac GSA, said she wants the policy change to help future students.
“I don’t want them growing up feeling oppression,” said Nobrega, who is bisexual. “They don’t feel like they are accepted, and that needs to change.”
Evan Ayars, the choir director at Chantilly High School and GSA faculty adviser, said the group begins meetings with students’ preferred pronouns in deference to transgender students.
“The bottom line is inclusion, regardless of your identity,” Ayars said. “I could have been fired just because I’m gay until 2014. That’s utterly ridiculous to me.”
Chantilly senior Carly Carter, 18, said gay students often encounter hostility at school. Posters put up by the GSA have been torn down, and some students have heard slurs. Sophomore Lauren Collins, 16, president of the GSA, said transgender students suffer when opponents describe their expression as “self-hatred.”
“You don’t hate yourself, but society is putting you in this box,” Collins said. “And you hate the box because it’s keeping you from being yourself. And you hate how other people are treating you. It’s hard to be transgender because there’s such a backlash in society and people are saying ‘Oh, you hate yourself and it’s a mental illness,’ and they are telling you who you are and no one’s listening to you say who you are.”
As a result, the Chantilly student group is in the process of renaming itself the “Gender and Sexuality Alliance.”
Senior Alina Besalel, 18, said the group is a place where people can see that they are not freaks and aren’t alone: “Everyone has the right to exist, and people shouldn’t have to fight for that.”