Fairfax County outlaws discrimination against transgender students and faculty members

Tina Nguyen and Alina Besalel

In March, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced that local school boards have the authority to include protections for gender identity in their non-discrimination policies. This decision was made under the precedent of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits schools that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex, according to the Department of Education.

Following the announcement, Fairfax County School Board Member Ryan McElveen proposed to include transgender student rights in FCPS’ non-discrimination policy. This would protect all transgender students and faculty members from discrimination which is already disallowed based on race, religion and sexual orientation.

Individuals who are transgender do not self-identify as being gender they were assigned at birth. The term only clarifies gender identity and does not specify biological sex, because the two do not have to align and people do not have to undergo reconstructive surgery in order to be acknowledged and respected as trans.

The proposal to protect gender identity stirred up strong conflicting opinions. According to the Washington Post, Virginia delegates Robert Marshall and David LaRock spoke out against this proposal at a school board meeting, asserting that the school board has no authority to rule on gender identity.

Fairfax County constituents responded with another interpretation of case law by claiming that gender is already protected under the Equal Protection Clause and should receive closer scrutiny in determining discrimination.

“It’s not even a rule; it’s more of a freedom that we finally get to have,” senior Kaelin Bernard said. “Why does it come down to who you can and can’t abuse? I don’t see why people teach their kids hate like this. If they understood that there are people who aren’t comfortable with who they’re born as, they would know there’s nothing wrong with that.”

A school board meeting was held on May 7 to address this issue. Speakers and representatives flooded Luther Jackson Middle School to argue the proposal.

“Honestly, I hadn’t seen a school board meeting that well-attended in my history of school board meetings,” special education teacher and Fairfax Education Association President Elect Kevin J. Hickerson said. “And I have been going to them for ten years.”

Hickerson attended the school board meeting as a sponsor and representative of the Gay Straight Alliance. He recalled protesters outside of the building holding posters filled with hate speech toward transgender students. Many opposing constituents harassed and verbally abused transgender speakers.

“One [man] yelled at a lesbian youth, pushing her to tears, to the point where I had to step in and say ‘You’re not talking to her like that; you’re going to talk to me from now on,'” Hickerson said. “He was telling me it was great 50-60 years ago when he was in school. I said there were also no African Americans in [his] school, and women were treated as second class citizens. He didn’t understand why things had to change.’”

When it came time to vote on the proposal, 10 of the 12 school board members voted in favor of adding gender identity considerations to the school non-discrimination clause.

Many adults are not versed in the nuances of gender identity, as public awareness and activism for the trans community is a relatively new phenomenon, and lack of education leads to misunderstanding.

The most heated debate in the school board meeting was over the right of trans students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. According to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute, 68 percent of transgender people in the D.C. area experience verbal harassment when using the bathroom, nine percent have experienced physical assault, and 18 percent were denied access to restrooms in school or the workplace.

With this decision, FCPS non-discrimination policy is more inclusive, making school a safer environment for a broader range of students. Fairfax County has a population of over 1.1 million people and is the most populous county in both the state of Virginia and the greater D.C. metropolitan area.

Virginia law does not yet include statewide protections against hate violence based on gender identity and expression. This school board decision was viewed as a monumental accomplishment for the trans community by setting a precedent for the rest of the state. Students emphasized the importance of incremental change in creating a safe environment for everyone in the school system.

“Times change, and it’s not just affecting women or black people or trans people,” Bernard said. “It’s about change that affects everybody, and it’s got to start with childhood. It’s got to start in the school system because if it doesn’t, people aren’t going to understand that this is normal. Nothing is wrong with you for wanting to be who you are. If they taught us that in school, everybody would be comfortable with themselves.”