The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), with board members newly appointed by Governor Glenn Youngkin, issued the “2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools” on Friday, September 16. The document is a complete reversal of the 2021 guidelines, which were devised to offer transgender students safe, supportive, and inclusive school environments.
The 2021 model policies were designed to protect transgender students’ privacy and ensure they are treated consistent with their gender identity, while minimizing the risk of harm to them. One year ago, the VDOE stipulated that confidentiality is critical for transgender students who do not have supportive families and emphasized the importance of recognizing their gender identity by using their chosen names and pronouns in school. In 2021, the VDOE recommended that school policies, rules, and activities were gender inclusive.
By contrast, the 2022 VDOE requires students to use bathrooms that “correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires,” relegating “sex” to a male/female binary when such designations are not straightforward and exclude nonbinary and intersex students. The new policies also state that student participation in school athletics and activities should be based on “biological sex,” when trans youth are asking for gender-affirming policies in ways that are not new. The 2022 model policies require students or parents to submit legal documents and identification to substantiate a change of legal name or sex—forcing youth to out themselves in order to simply be themselves.
Finally, the document states, “Practices such as compelling others to use preferred pronouns is premised on the ideological belief that gender is a matter of personal choice or subjective experience, not sex,” followed by the assertion that “religious freedom” exempts anyone from affirming “ideas that may be contrary to their personal religious beliefs.” In effect, the gender identities of trans and nonbinary students are delegitimized, while the religious identities of those who will not respect their pronouns are elevated.
In fact, an ideology of religious nationalism flows through these new guidelines, negating trans students’ rights in a public, state-funded setting. Virginia Gov. Youngkin’s white Christian nationalism has been apparent to those paying attention. Diana Butler Bass describes Youngkin’s religio-political identity as one forged through an “encounter of Pentecostal enthusiasm and Episcopal upper-middle class respectability in the Virginia suburbs [that] resulted in a new form of charismatic politics—a right-wing social activism based on a nostalgic longing for Christian American and elite Republican social mores.” Youngkin has opposed LGBTQ rights and teaching about systemic racism in public schools as he seeks, according to Butler Bass, to “secure political power to build the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Last summer, Youngkin appointed to the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) Suparna Dutta, an educational activist who has opposed school policies designed to promote equity and inclusion, particularly for Black and Latino students. Dutta co-founded Coalition for TJ—a parent group opposed to new admission standards for Thomas Jefferson High, a coveted public magnet school in Northern Virginia. She is also the education platform director of the American Hindu Coalition (AHC), an advocacy organization that claims to be nonpartisan but has a conservative issues platform, including its mission to uphold “traditional family values and support for parental control of education.”
Less obviously, the AHC is aligned with Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. Hindutva “is a modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India … into an ethno-religious nation,” according to the South Asia Scholar Activist Collective. Hindutva is the official platform of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and is embraced by some parts of Indian diaspora. The founder of the American Hindu Coalition, Shekhar Tiwari, has been a member and remains in touch with the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization. By appointing Dutta of the AHC to the VBOE, Youngkin, in a sense, has allied American Christian nationalism with diasporic Hindu nationalism, while weaponizing the notion of “parental rights” to the detriment of trans life.
Flouting evidence to the contrary, the 2022 VDOE contends, “Empowering parents is essential to improving outcomes for children.” The 2022 VDOE claims that they reversed the 2021 model policies because they supposedly “disregarded the rights of parents,” yet they are infringing on the parental rights of trans and nonbinary students with their new stipulations. The board’s guidelines erroneously conflate gender and sex and claim that many Virginians reject the idea that gender identity can be different than biological sex. And yet, protests by students and resistance from city officials since the 2022 model policies were released demonstrate that many Virginians in fact support trans students and their identities.
I’ve spent a year conducting ethnographic research on public school board meetings and policy in Hanover County, Virginia, located near Richmond. In Hanover County, even as the adoption of the 2021 model policies played out during a contentious year of school board meetings framed by what one parent called “the transgender question,” advocates for trans students’ rights wore pink shirts designed by the LGBTQ youth advocacy organization Side by Side that read, “You Are Loved.” Many voices joined the parents of trans youth. During a school board meeting, one speaker pushed back against transphobic assumptions: “It’s not funny to think that just because somebody is transgender or nonbinary that they are a sexual predator or violent or want to slide their phone under a bathroom stall and take a picture of another student. I’d like to ask that the school board disregard these spurious correlations that are simply not true.”
There were also testimonies by trans and nonbinary students. A high school senior stated, “Coming out as transgender caused me to lose many of my friends … I’ve had strangers demand to know what’s in my pants. Since middle school, I’ve been accused of being every type of biological deviant … I’ve been bullied because of who I am … As I leave Hanover County Public Schools, I feel an immense sense of relief … But that relief is tainted by the knowledge that there will be more trans kids like me coming through this school district. And I am afraid for them. I feel dread for the child who will face this without an accepting family and become another number on a chart for suicide rates.”
A 2014 Hanover graduate shared, “It’s likely [my former teacher on the school board] doesn’t remember or recognize me, but if he were to recall, he’d remember me sitting in AP government class and answering a lot of his questions … the person that he knew was not the confident and proud trans woman that stands here today, but rather a scared boy just trying to get by. Now I’m finally the person I want to be. I’ve had to grow accustomed to hearing people tell me, ‘Wow, you’re so brave.’ They don’t mean harm, and I don’t take it that way. But every time I hear someone say those words, I’m reminded of how unfair it is that I have to be brave. Is anyone else here brave for putting on clothes in the morning, going to school, or going outside? … I’m disheartened to say that my home of Hanover County lags in implementing policies that would give people like me the simple freedom of using the restroom … The truth is, I am brave and so are all the parents, advocates, teachers and trans students here tonight speaking up in favor of allowing trans students to simply be afforded the same ability to be themselves as every other student.”
Community members who opposed the policy figured transgender students as sexual perverts, mentally ill, self-deluded, and unworthy of “special treatment.” They were mobilized by a Richmond organization called The Family Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit that claims to be nonpartisan but whose work is aligned with the Christian Right. As their website reads, “We advocate for policies based on Biblical principles … We are uniquely positioned at the center of a national, state, and local coalition, which includes being associated with Focus on the Family.” Their #ProtectEveryKid campaign, described as a “movement,” was a presence during school board meetings. Community members bore placards with this slogan to attest, “Parents are encountering an onslaught of attempts to subvert parental authority through explicit content, promotion of gender confusion, Marxist-themed lessons and training materials.”
During a meeting in November 2021, a white man who simply called himself “a minister of the gospel” walked to the podium with a Bible. “We’re in a spiritual battle in our nation,” he said. “There are principalities and powers of darkness at work that want nothing more than to destroy us.” “I’m going to share a prayer tonight,” said a white woman. “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for being with us tonight and protecting our school board … God, please let them have the courage to vote no to the transgender policy … Father, we ask that you watch over our new school co-op, Harbor Christian Academy, and spread the word to parents.” The last speaker concluded, “Bless this nation as we are, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Thank you, Jesus. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.” This “amen” was loudly echoed by some audience members in a collective sigh of blessing. Christian nationalism permeated the atmosphere of the public school board meeting, conjuring a spiritual and worldly battle for Hanover County and the nation that came down to a vote against trans students’ right to exist.
During a second meeting in November, the school board voted 4-3 against adopting an amendment to its “Equal Education Opportunities” policy that afforded trans students the chance to use the restrooms and locker rooms that aligned with their gender identity as long as they provided a written request signed by a parent. This amendment also stated that gender-segregated school activities would be avoided if there was no legitimate educational purpose. In effect, the board inconsistently adopted only a few of the 2021 VDOE model policy recommendations, but it was a start. The board’s inability to adopt any policy to protect trans students led to a lawsuit filed against them by the ACLU on behalf of five Hanover families in December 2021.
By March 2022, the Hanover County School Board had enlisted Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights, and God’s design for marriage and family,” to review a new policy for the upcoming school year. After ADF offered input, the district’s amendment on behalf of transgender students was reduced to a “restroom and locker room” policy. If a trans student wants access to restrooms or locker rooms that align with their gender identity, they are required to submit a written request with a parent. This paperwork must specify they have “been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and/or that the student consistently and authentically expresses a binary gender identity” and provide “disciplinary or criminal records.” The Hanover policy crafted with ADF forces trans youth to prove that they are worthy of the bodily autonomy cisgender students take for granted.
In August, there were two meetings before the new policy vote, but the restroom and locker room policy achieved its goal before its implementation, by silencing trans students. The content and tenor of the public comments in support of trans students also shifted. Someone testified, “This policy places the school board on a trajectory towards Christofascism. Imposing religious beliefs on public institutions is a perversion of the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Constitution.” Another speaker shared that their United Methodist Church had a welcome statement in their Sunday bulletin that included gender identity and sexual orientation and that, “as followers of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the pursuit of justice and pledge to stand in solidarity with all who are marginalized. I strongly believe that public school policy should not be based on any religious tradition. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.” Debate over whose values and beliefs were truly Christian took over the discussion. One speaker stated, “I’m going to use God’s awesome word, the Bible, to talk about this policy. And I wanted to say that some have been misusing God’s word to support their view … It says in Genesis 1:27 that God created us male and female. There are no other genders listed here in His word.”
On August 30, the Hanover School Board voted to adopt the restroom and locker room policy to the detriment of trans students’ lives. Though Christians came out to support trans students, the debate from others in attendance about what counts as authentic Christianity overshadowed their support. Such discussions distracted from other voices and dynamics of power that need to be addressed. No one is talking about Youngkin’s entanglements, inadvertent or strategic, with a U.S. Hindutva-aligned organization. The material and structural harms of the 2022 VDOE model policies to trans students evince how globally networked entwinements of ethno-religious nationalism enact political violence. Trans students, their parents, advocates, and LGBTQ+ organizations continue to fight in Hanover and other parts of Virginia, as they do in school districts throughout the country, and they deserve all the collective support we can offer.
Jessica Johnson is a visiting scholar of religious studies at the College of William & Mary. She is the author of Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire.