Transgender rights advocate Ranger Balleisen, an alum of McLean High School class of 2023 and organizer of the student-led advocacy group Pride Liberation Project, is taking a stand against a simmering onslaught. Balleisen, who uses the pronouns he/him, and others oppose the Virginia Department of Education 2023 Model Policies on Ensuring Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools (the “2023 Model Policies”) finalized Tuesday, July 18, 2023. According to the document, it became effective the next day.
“As queer students in our Commonwealth, we strongly condemn the governor’s policies as an attempt to force LGBTQIA+ students back into the closet and urge school districts to reject them," Pride Liberation said in a release the day after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin's administration finalized the policies.
According to Balleisen, Pride Liberation is launching a new campaign, Students4Trans, against Governor Youngkin's anti-trans guidelines. #Students4Trans will mobilize thousands of Virginia students against Governor Youngkin's Don't Be Trans policies at the state and local levels, Balleisen said.
Balleisen and approximately 45 protesters gathered outside the Virginia Department of Education headquarters in Richmond two days earlier on Friday. The protestors' messages of "Protect trans rights," "We should not have to fight to exist," and “Oppose Youngkin’s Model Policies” can be seen on the signs they carried.
The finalized 2023 Model Policies reversed the 2021 trans-affirming guidelines of Youngkin's predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), and fulfilled a version of Youngkin's campaign promise of strengthening parents' rights.
Under the enacted 2023 policies, trans students are called by teachers and students by their name and pronoun at birth. That is unless the parents have agreed in writing otherwise. Schools must inform parents about their children’s nicknames, pronouns, or social transitions that may occur at school. Parents control the counseling of students while at school. The guidelines prevent trans students from participating in sports teams or using restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities.
Balleisen said that although he has graduated from a public high school and the 2023 Model Policies do not apply to him, other younger transgender students he knows are still in Virginia public schools, which does matter to him.
Around the same time last fall, on Sept. 27, tens of thousands of Virginia students, including those at Balleisen’s alma mater, McLean High School, walked out to protest the governor's proposed anti-trans policies. The Pride Liberation Project, which organized the walkouts, said on Twitter, "We're walking out today to make it clear to @GovernorVA that students can't learn if we're worried about abuse, harassment, depression, and our rights. All we want is to be able to learn in an inclusive school that lets us thrive like every other student."
The finalized Model Policies present a Sample Policy in Appendix 1. It includes definitions for consideration “for use by local school boards as they develop and implement their policies in compliance with the Act.” According to policies, “transgender student” means “a public school student whose parent has stated in writing that the student’s gender differs from the student’s sex, or an eligible student who states in writing that his or her gender differs from his or her sex.”
“These policies provide families the opportunity to weigh in on their child’s decisions and be a partner in their education,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Lisa Coons in a statement announcing the release of the Model Policies on July 18. “We encourage all school divisions to review the policies and implement them into their local policies in collaboration with their school boards and community stakeholders.”
Some School Districts Balk at Revised Policies
Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) responded to Youngkin’s request in an opinion dated Aug. 23, 2023, confirming that the Virginia Department of Education’s “Model Policies on Ensuring Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools” complies with federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
“It is my opinion that the model policies comply with the Equal Protection Clause, Title IX, and the VHRA, and that pursuant to § 22.1-23.3, local school boards are required to adopt policies that are consistent with them,” Miyares wrote.
However, questions remain about how much power the state has to enforce compliance, and if there is room for individual school boards to interpret the model policies and the legal issues.
Spotsylvania County Public Schools became the first division in Virginia to adopt the new guidelines on the treatment of transgender students in an Aug. 15 school board vote. On Aug. 17, Roanoke County Public Schools was close behind.
At least four school districts have rejected the policies: Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William counties. Richmond Public Schools superintendent recommended the school board retain current policies.
Gender Dysphoria, Protected Disability in Virginia
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that gender dysphoria is a protected disability in Virginia and three other states.
On Aug. 16, 2022, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act protect individuals with gender dysphoria from discrimination.
Plaintiff Kesha Williams, a transgender woman with gender dysphoria whose gender identity as female differs from the male gender she was assigned at birth, brought suit against the sheriff of Fairfax County, a prison deputy, and a nurse. She alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the United States Constitution, and state common law. The case challenged the placement of Williams in a men’s prison and the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office denial of care related to her gender dysphoria.
The court's decision cited the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, which states that gender dysphoria is distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth.
Gender dysphoria can present debilitating symptoms, including depression, substance abuse, self-mutilation, and self-harm.
The court used this understanding to rule that the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to gender dysphoria.
On June 30, 2023, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by declining to review the case. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., dissenting the denial to review, wrote as part of his argument, “The Fourth Circuit’s decision makes an important provision of a federal law inoperative and, given the broad reach of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, will have far-reaching and important effects across much of civil society in that Circuit.”