'Taking control of our own lives': Virginia students walk out over reversal of transgender protections

ARLINGTON, Va. – More than 1,000 students walked out of Virginia middle and high schools Tuesday, organizers said, leaving class in protest of the state's reversal of transgender protections that put decisions on students' identities and preferred names at school exclusively in the hands of their parents.

What's in the policy: The guidelines, released Sept. 16 by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's administration, require students to use restrooms, pronouns and names based on their official school records. It limits sports teams to gender assigned at birth, and it tightens parental notification requirements.

What students are saying: "Revoking (transgender protections) now would be like dialing back the clock. It'd be like telling students, 'we don't really care, you're not really who you believe yourself to be,'" Andrea-Grace Mukuna, 16, told USA TODAY on Tuesday at John R. Lewis High School in Springfield, where more than 100 of her peers walked out for a protest on the football field.

The big picture: The walkouts are part of greater nationwide youth pushback to an uptick in anti-LGBTQ policies in schools, including what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and bans in 18 states against transgender athletes participating in sports that match their gender identity.

More coverage on LGBTQ youth:

Over 1,000 students walk out

Pride Liberation Project, a youth-led LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit, helped organize the walkouts throughout the day at more than 100 schools and said over 1,000 students participated Tuesday. At some high schools in Northern Virginia, hundreds of students poured out of buildings in the morning, spending roughly half an hour chanting their opposition to the new guidance and listening to speakers.

One of Mukuna's main objectives was to raise awareness among her peers about their ability to have a say in what happens next by submitting comments during the policy's public comment period over the next month. She and her co-organizers handed out flyers at the walkout with QR codes that students can scan to go to the website for submitting comments.

"We're really having our own agency and taking control of our own lives in a way that many youths feel they can't at this age," she said, noting that Fairfax County schools have been "progressive in allowing students to go by the name and pronouns of their choosing."

"Teachers have been really accommodating of that, and now a lot of students feel confident in their gender expression," she said.

Student activists at McLean High School encouraged the 100-plus teens who walked out at 10:30 a.m. to attend the district's next school board meeting. "Trans rights are human rights," the organizers chanted into megaphones. "D.O.E., leave us be!"

Some speakers recalled their own mental health struggles and how the new guidelines would cause more pain for already-vulnerable youth.

"I was just completely terrified – I cried," said Casey Calabia, a 17-year-old senior at McLean High School, when they heard about the new policy last week. "It was a huge blow to myself and so many other students. The personal toll of these things – it's just monumental."

What does Youngkin's education policy reverse?

Last year, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's administration instituted model policies that protected transgender and other LGBTQ students at school. The guidelines released this month, The 2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students in Virginia's Public School, revises those Department of Education guidelines.

Under the new policy:

  • Students should be referred to by the name and pronouns in their official records unless a parent approves the use of an alternative.

  • Schools may separate sports teams on the basis of sex assigned at birth and are not required to allow students of one sex to participate in sports teams reserved for members of another sex.

  • Students must now file legal documents if they wish to be called by different pronouns.

  • Schools may not encourage teachers to conceal information about a student's gender from their parents.

The policy acknowledges that "every effort should be made to ensure that a transgender student wishing to change his or her means of address is treated with respect, compassion and dignity," but ultimately requires a guardian to sign off on the change, presenting challenges for students with non-LGBTQ-affirming parents.

Impact on transgender students

Students and parents who've spoken out against the guidelines say the changes put LGBTQ youth in danger because it bans they/them pronouns and allows students to be deadnamed or misgendered.

Calabia, the McLean High student, said their biggest concern was a change permitting schools to out students as transgender to their parents without their permission. Calabia is an organizer with Pride Liberation Project.

"I know people personally who are out at school but not out at home," Calabia told USA TODAY. "If they got outed through this transgender model policy, it would absolutely ruin their lives. They do not have supportive households."

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks with reporters after touring a Loudoun County elections facility at the County Office of Elections, in Leesburg, Va., on Sept. 20.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks with reporters after touring a Loudoun County elections facility at the County Office of Elections, in Leesburg, Va., on Sept. 20.

What's next?

A 30-day public comment period opened Monday and has already collected more than 16,000 responses. The state school board will not vote on the model policy but the Superintendent of Public Instruction may amend the final draft based on comments, state Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle told Education Week.

Legal precedent: Gavin Grimm

A spokesperson for the U.S. Education Department pointed to the model policy's fine print, which stipulates compliance with federal law.

The federal courts have thus far ruled that the United States Constitution and Title IX "protect transgender students from school bathroom policies that prohibit them from affirming their gender identity," the spokesperson said. A key case involved a transgender student in Virginia named Gavin Grimm who was denied access to the boy's restroom and forced to use a separate facility. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, allowing lower courts' rulings in favor of Grimm to stand.

"Virginia’s proposed policy does not, as it legally could not, direct Virginia schools to discriminate against transgender students where prohibited by federal law," the department spokesperson said. "Virginia’s new proposed policy is designed to confuse and its most likely outcome will be to undermine (schools') focus on schooling."

How have people reacted?

School response: Multiple school boards have suggested they may resist and push back on the policies, including Alexandria City Public Schools and Falls Church City Public Schools, The Washington Post reported.

What Youngkin says: Youngkin spokesman Macaulay Porter said in a statement that the updated policy “delivers on the governor’s commitment to preserving parental rights and upholding the dignity and respect of all public school students.”

Youngkin also joined several states in suing the Biden administration for requiring schools to update policies and signage as well as investigate discrimination allegations involving sexual orientation and gender identity in order to qualify for federal school lunch funding.

Nationwide: A look at other efforts

The Biden administration is currently reviewing comments to its proposed revisions to Title IX regulations, which include codifying protections for transgender and nonbinary students under nondiscrimination categories.

But LGBTQ and survivor advocate groups have also pushed back on the Department of Education for neglecting to address guidelines on transgender and nonbinary student participation in gender-specific sports teams in the revised regulations. Federal Education Department officials have said they plan to propose separate rules on the topic but have not yet released a timeline for doing so.

Florida's so-called Don't Say Gay bill, officially name the Parental Rights in Education Act, that passed in March was the most high-profile example of legislation restricting LGBTQ youth in the United States. It limited speech on sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms. Bills in other states also restrict transgender student participation in gender-specific sports teams and require parental permission for student participation in LGBTQ extracurriculars activities.

This story was updated with comment from the U.S. Education Department. 

Contributing: Kayla Jimenez and Chris Quintana, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virginia students stage walkout over Youngkin transgender policy