Metro Weekly

Pro-LGBT candidate wins Fairfax School Board election

Advocates hope Fairfax will avoid "draconian" anti-transgender policies cropping up in other counties

Karen Keys-Gamarra – Photo: Facebook.

LGBTQ advocates are celebrating after a pro-LGBTQ candidate for Fairfax County School Board overwhelmingly won her seat in a special election on Tuesday, Aug. 29.

Karen Keys-Gamarra, who narrowly lost in the 2015 race for the Sully District seat, emerged victorious in a four-way race, defeating second-place finisher Chris Grisafe by nearly 30 points. 

While races for school board are technically nonpartisan, Keys-Gamarra was endorsed by the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, while Grisafe earned the nod of the Fairfax County Republican Committee.

Both were competing for the seat left open by the resignation of Jeanette Hough. For LGBTQ people in particular, Keys-Gamarra’s victory was a triumph of sorts, flipping a seat that Hough had won, in part, by riding a wave of voter anger over the previous school board’s decision to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy.

Hough campaigned on opposition to the policy, specifically playing up fears related to transgender children’s ability to use restrooms matching their gender identity, rather than biological sex at birth.

Keys-Gamarra supports adding regulations that would allow transgender children to be treated according to their gender identity and that would allow them to fully participate in school life, without having to be segregated or barred from certain spaces or certain school activities.

She also said she’d vote to keep the current school board’s nondiscrimination policy in place, a promise Grisafe refused to make.

“Today we took a stand to celebrate diversity here in our county. I will champion students who feel lost in our school system and I’m so excited to start,” she said in a statement posted on her campaign’s Facebook page.

Danica Roem, the Democratic nominee for the House of Delegates race in Prince William County’s District 13, travelled to Fairfax with four volunteers to knock on doors for Keys-Gamarra.

Roem celebrated the large margin by which Keys-Gamarra was elected, saying it bodes well for Democratic prospects in the county this November, when the party is hoping to oust Republican incumbents in order to gain seats in the House of Delegates, in the hope of pushing a more progressive — and, for some, an LGBTQ-inclusive — agenda.

She compared Tuesday’s results to those in the April race for Prince William County Circuit Court Clerk, which saw pro-LGBTQ Democrat Jacqueline Smith defeat the anti-gay Del. Jackson Miller in a political upset.

Keys-Gamarra, says Roem was the “second woman to run in a county-wide special election in Northern Virginia with an unabashedly pro-LGBT platform.”

Roem added that the victory was significant, in that it would “isolate” Republican-backed school board incumbents Tom Wilson and Elizabeth Schultz from the rest of the board, with respect to protections for LGBTQ students.

Schultz, in particular, has vehemently opposed any acknowledgement of or expansion of rights for LGBTQ students, even appearing on a panel that portrayed the approval of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies as a “threat” to heterosexual and cisgender students.

The pro-LGBTQ parent and teacher group FCPS Pride, which had previously endorsed Keys-Gamarra, issued a statement celebrating her victory.

“Karen is a long-time ally of LGBTQ people, and we look forward to her being a leading voice in making progress in such things as regulations designed to support students in social transition in schools, and health benefits for LGBT employees. In the broader scope, Karen will advocate strongly for all students in FCPS,” Robert Rigby, the head of FCPS Pride said in a statement.

“Yet the night of Karen’s victory was bittersweet for our community,” Rigby added. “That same evening we learned of a girl in another part of Virginia who learned from her school that she will be forced to change for gym in the nurse’s bathroom, and will banned from the same facilities as other girls, just because she is transgender.”

The student referred to by Rigby is currently attending public schools in Stafford County, one of three counties in Virginia (in addition to Gloucester and Grayson) that have adopted policies explicitly prohibiting administrators from treating transgender children according to their gender identity.

“We have avoided these draconian policies in Fairfax, but it underscores just how tenuous our victory is,” Rigby said. “The need for progressive and sympathetic leaders at the state and federal level has never been more clear.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com