The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forty years of moral panics in Virginia help explain Gov. Youngkin

Long after the cause of a moral panic fades from the spotlight, the battle can shape what is politically possible

A rally to continue Loudon County's school mask mandate is held on Jan. 18, in Leesburg, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The start of Glenn Youngkin’s term as governor of Virginia has already been marked by controversy, particularly over a series of executive actions. The orders that have caused the greatest concern ban the teaching of “divisive” concepts in school, including critical race theory (CRT), lift mask requirements in school and rescind a coronavirus vaccine mandate for state employees. These orders were coupled with proposals in the Virginia Senate and House to restrict transgender students’ access to single-sex school facilities that affirm their gender identity. The factual inaccuracies and heightened emotions on which this agenda is built constitute a renewed moral panic over education.

These fierce contestations over coronavirus regulations, CRT and transgender rights seem specific to the political and cultural landscape of 2022 and, some may hope, are also ephemeral. Virginia Democrats are pushing back in the Senate and across the commonwealth, and if coronavirus cases diminish, debates over regulations may become moot.

However, a closer look at debates about disease, education and LGBTQ rights over the past 40 years reveals that the logic of moral panics can curtail political possibilities long after the sources of those panics have become irrelevant. This is especially true when these anxieties are anchored in concerns about education and child welfare.

The AIDS crisis of the 1980s presents a tempting but inexact parallel to our own pandemic times. At first glance, the ideological fault lines look almost reversed. Arguing that parents had a right to keep their kids safe from transmission, many PTA members and conservative school officials supported sweeping policies that would exclude HIV-positive students from in-person schooling. In 1985, marginally Republican-led Fairfax County became the first school district in the D.C. area to formally pass such a policy. But rather than arguing that such measures were scientifically unsound (the Centers for Disease Control had already issued guidelines to the contrary), the Virginia Department of Education under Democratic Gov. Chuck Robb maintained that, according to Virginia law, students with contagious illnesses were not allowed to attend school.

The Virginia Board of Education rolled back these restrictions in 1989, affirming HIV-positive students’ right to privacy. A new debate, however, was ramping up over sex education. In 1987, a Family Life Education curriculum was introduced for Virginia public schools, to be implemented in 1989, which included discussion of AIDS and STD prevention, contraception and human sexuality. The proposal generated swift backlash and became a key issue in the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election. In Virginia Beach, for instance, about 1000 people gathered at Green Run High School to protest supposed promotion of homosexuality in the classroom, while Republican J. Marshall Coleman’s campaign simultaneously argued for parental control.

Although the state’s schools implemented the curriculum and Democratic Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who supported it, defeated Coleman, the mobilization of opposition targeting Wilder and a number of delegates up for reelection laid the groundwork for an ongoing battle.

By the mid-1990s, anxieties about sex education structured both sides of the debate down to the local level, making it increasingly difficult for candidates for school board to extract themselves from the logic of moral panic.

Although the 1995 Fairfax County School Board election saw only one candidate fully oppose Family Life Education — even Christian activists in Virginia Beach had backed down — the majority of candidates who supported the curriculum emphasized its inclusion of abstinence education and parents’ ability to opt out when justifying their support.

During the simultaneous Prince William County School Board elections, candidate Mary Louise Jackson argued that “the daily rise in cases of youth with AIDS and other STDs and the annual increase in teen pregnancies … point to the need for continued access to information for our youth.” Candidate David R. Williams, however, made the opposite claim, explaining that, “the rising illegitimacy rates among teens and the rising spread of sexually transmitted diseases should be evidence enough that the current message of ‘Do it but wear protection’ is not working. We should be teaching the abstinence-based message that our county guidelines spell out.” Although the conclusions were contradictory — with the former more effective in reducing pregnancy rates and the latter potentially harmful, especially to communities of color — the underlying fears of HIV and STIs had combined with anxieties about teen parenthood to set the terms of the debate.

In September 1997, the Virginia Board of Education voted to end the requirement of Family Life Education. In its place, newly elected Republican Gov. James Gilmore instituted a $1.5 million campaign to promote abstinence among teens. Although Gilmore’s election platform had tried to appeal to moderates, the rhetoric of parental choice and abstinence-only education, combined with block grants offered by a Republican-controlled Congress, enabled a strategy that aligned with the goals of Christian conservatives.

In the mid-2000s, concerns about child protection and welfare were again marshaled in service of a referendum that would amend Virginia’s constitution to restrict marriage to one man and one woman, as part of a national backlash at the time against limited court-based gains. In warning against the dangers of same-sex marriage, Republican delegate and eventual co-author of the amendment, Robert Marshall, wrote in 2004 that in Massachusetts, where the state supreme judicial court had recently legalized same-sex marriage, public schools taught about “gay marriage and gay sex” while “activist homosexuals” in Virginia opposed allowing the Boy Scouts to meet in public schools because of their anti-gay policies.

Contestations over sexuality, schools and marriage continued into subsequent legislative sessions. In 2006, the House passed H.B. 1308 in a 70-to-29 vote that would allow school boards to ban any student club that “encourages or promotes sexual activity by unmarried minor students,” implicitly targeting gay-straight alliances. In the same session, another House bill was introduced to emphasize abstinence and “honor and respect for monogamous, heterosexual marriage” in the Virginia Department of Education’s guidelines for (non-mandatory) sex education.

Both bills represented a combination of anxieties about gay rights and sexuality in schools that took heterosexual marriage as a standard of sexual morality. This logic proved difficult even for Democratic legislators to disentangle.

In debating H.B. 1308 on student clubs, Democratic Sen. Nick Rerras of Norfolk argued in support of the proposal, citing the need to “set a high moral standard” for students. Democratic Sen. Janet D. Howell of Fairfax countered that she had attended a meeting of a local gay-straight alliance and found that “there was no reference to sex at all.” The bill was ultimately defeated in the Senate, but the terms of its defeat were clear: sexual immorality had no place in schools.

When the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage did make it on to the ballot, it did so without the support of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, although Kaine stressed his continued opposition to same-sex marriage (he has since changed his stance). Virginians nevertheless voted in favor of the amendment, which remains in the constitution.

Sixteen years later, things look different — possibly better. In 2007, Kaine cut funding to abstinence-only education, and in 2014 same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia. However, marriage equality does little directly to help transgender children safely access needed facilities, and there is still no comprehensive or LGBTQ-inclusive statewide sex education program.

Local efforts to lift mask requirements, legislative efforts to marginalize transgender students in their own schools and executive orders to ban “divisive concepts” are not new phenomena — although their vocabulary is indebted to a post-2020 political moment. At the same time, they are not reversions to a political past that Virginia somehow overcame during the last legislative session.

Instead, they are part of a longer history of moral panics over education that can entrench themselves in the political landscape of a state and constrain the possibilities for even the most well-intentioned efforts at reform. Attention to other debates about education, such as the era of desegregation, when schools across Virginia shut down rather than integrate, and fears of gangs in schools, which contributed to the incarceration of minors across the country, may reveal further continuities. In particular, the intertwined histories of HIV/AIDS, sex education and LGBTQ rights in schools reveal that contemporary moral panics over education have the possibility to shape a political landscape for decades to come.