Kayden Ortiz dwelled on the word.
It appeared in a text message from a friend trying to comfort Ortiz, then a seventh-grader at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County. Until then, he’d struggled to find a precise word, the language, that captured why he felt he didn’t belong.
It was not a word he would have heard years ago when learning about sexual health in a Fairfax County school. But with a single vote at a meeting punctuated by jeering and shouting, the county’s school board this month made a four-word change in language that is freighted with social and cultural significance.
The board decided to replace “biological sex” with “sex assigned at birth” in the district’s family life education curriculum, which includes lessons on sexual health and sexuality.
Supporters say the language more precisely conveys that a person’s anatomy may not coincide with gender identity. “Biological sex,” they argue, is coded language used to denigrate transgender people.
Detractors say the changed language will confuse students, condemning it as political sloganeering that values ideology over biology.
With the school board vote, Fairfax had become the latest battleground over recognition of transgender and nonbinary students in the nation’s schools. In some states and school districts, sexual orientation and discussions of gender are woven into sexual health education. In others, it’s against the law for teachers to portray same-sex relationships favorably.
Northern Virginia and California have served as laboratories for policies regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, said David Aponte, co-chair of the advocacy group GLSEN NoVa.
In Fairfax, the school board in 2015 forbade discrimination based on gender identity. The same year, the school system expanded its sex education curriculum to include teaching teenagers about gender identity and transgender issues. The latest change — using “sex assigned at birth” — helps convey to students they are accepted regardless of how they choose to identify, Aponte said.
“Changing this language in schools really affirms people’s identities,” Aponte said. “It’s validating.”
Across the country, differences in how educators approach issues of sexuality and gender identity are vast — and provoke impassioned responses.
One Fairfax parent, Hope Wojciech, called “sex assigned at birth” an “inaccurate” and “unscientific” phrase.
“A person’s sex is not ‘assigned,’ at birth or otherwise. It is established at conception when an egg is fertilized and a new set of DNA is formed, with chromosomes,” she said in an email. “I do not support students being taught something that is untrue and inconsistent with human biology.”
Some conservative states prevent educators from mentioning same-sex relationships.
In Alabama, sex education curriculum must emphasize that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” In South Carolina, health instruction cannot include discussion of “sexual lifestyles” other than “heterosexual relationships,” except when students are taught about sexually transmitted diseases, according to the state.
In contrast, California law says sex education must address gender, gender expression and gender identity.
In the San Francisco Unified School District, elementary school students are taught about the history of the LGBT rights movement and middle school students learn about gender identity, said Nicole Kau Arteaga, the school system’s LGBTQ programs coordinator.
Students in Seattle are taught about gender, gender expression and sexual orientation in middle and high school, said Lisa Love, manager of health education for Seattle Public Schools.
After fielding “requests galore” from teachers seeking resources to guide younger students who had started transitioning their gender or questioning their gender identity, the school system distributed books about gender to elementary school classrooms.
Kindergarten students learn from a children’s book called “Introducing Teddy” and are taught there are many ways to express gender. In fourth grade, students are expected to define transgender and explore an example of gender diversity.
The lessons, for some students, signal acceptance, Love said. Others move on with little fuss.
“We have not had the sky part or anything enormously dramatic,” she said.
Some waved miniature rainbow flags and pink signs that shouted, “SCIENCE SUPPORTS LGBTQ-INCLUSIVE CURRICULUM.”
Others clutched green printouts declaring, “BIOLOGY IS NOT BIGOTRY.”
The two sides converged in the Luther Jackson Middle School auditorium in Falls Church for the June 14 school board meeting, applauding and standing when they agreed with a speaker and heckling when they didn’t.
“God bless you,” a woman called out, after one speaker opposed to changes in the school system’s family-life-education curriculum chastised the school board.
The crowd grew so rambunctious that school board chair Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) intervened several times, banging her gavel and threatening to clear the room.
In the end, the school board voted 10 to 0 to endorse using “sex assigned at birth” as one of several changes to the curriculum.
Before the vote, school board member Karen Corbett Sanders (Mount Vernon) said the curriculum has evolved to become more inclusive.
“This inclusivity is a good thing because it values every person for the person they are and not by their appearance, their sexual orientation, their gender or the places they worship,” she said.
But Laura Murphy, a Fairfax parent who sat on an advisory committee that reviewed the issue, wrote in an email before the vote that assigning sex is “subjective” and “arbitrary.”
“We can and should acknowledge that some individuals struggle with gender identity,” said Murphy, who opposed the change. “However, suggesting that these individuals may in fact biologically transition from one sex to the other is impossible as it defies logic and well-respected scientific and medical principles.”
School board members Thomas Wilson (Scully) and Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) pushed to delay the vote but did not sway their colleagues. They weren’t present for the final vote.
Schultz argued the board failed to adequately review public input, noting that the school system received thousands of comments opposing the curriculum changes.
Wilson lobbied — unsuccessfully — for a rule requiring parents to give written permission for their child to participate in the family life education curriculum. Students can already opt out.
“Many people do not believe that all choices surrounding sexuality are equally good. They do not want sensitive topics about sexuality discussed in front of their young children during school hours,” Wilson said. “They would like to be the ones instructing their children on issues of sexuality and family life.”
The American Medical Association, the nation’s leading physician interest group, doesn’t have a policy recommending use of “sex assigned at birth.” But a spokesman said the organization favors “nonjudgmental recognition” of patients’ sexual orientations, sexual behaviors and gender identities.
Many physicians weren’t educated about LGBT issues, a deficit that some doctors have tried to address with training, said David Levine, a pediatrician and pediatrics professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
“When you look at today’s adolescents, a lot of them don’t follow prescribed gender roles,” Levine said. “It’s more a fact of life for this generation than it was for the last.”
Physicians acknowledge “transgender people exist,” said Gal Mayer, president of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality, adding that it makes sense to extend that knowledge to schools.
“Gender is more complicated than what your anatomy looks like, for some people,” he said. “That’s the idea this sparks. And it’s a beautiful one.”
It was a view fiercely protested by some in Fairfax, including those who vented on conservative websites.
One post lambasted “sex assigned at birth” as a “politically-charged slogan that teaches that it’s wrong for a delivery room doctor to say a penis means boy or a vagina means girl.”
The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington wrote in the Fairfax County Times that it was “regrettable” the public school system “would deny scientific truth.” Bishop Michael F. Burbidge wrote that using the phrase would confuse “children regarding the way biology impacts whether one is male or female.”
When you’re transgender, Ortiz said, language matters. Students, he said, feel safer and more supported when given the language to express how they feel.
“I’ve known since the second grade that I was transgender,” he said. “I just didn’t know the words for it.”
Ortiz, who is 20 and attending a community college in California, recalled joking in elementary school about traveling abroad for a “sex change” and charging the procedure to his parents’ credit card. Later, he questioned why he didn’t learn about sexual orientation along with lessons on reproductive health.
Sharla Smith, a sexual health education consultant for the California Department of Education, said equipping students with a shared vocabulary allows “crucial conversations.”
“This is really, really changing the culture and the lives of a lot of students, which is exactly what we need,” Smith said. “All of us want to feel respected and loved.”
When Ortiz got that text message with that word — transgender — back in seventh grade, he puzzled over it, studied it. He determined the word fit him.
It was, Ortiz said, “like a lightbulb moment.”