On Wednesday, the Prince William County School Board narrowly passed a nondiscrimination policy protecting LGBTQ students, employees, and staff from bullying, harassment or mistreatment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The board voted 5-3, mostly along partisan and ideological lines. While school board members are technically nonpartisan, the county’s political parties can make endorsements in school board races. All those candidates who had been backed by Democrats in 2015 voted in favor of the policy, with Republican-backed candidates voting against it.
The board previously voted to delay consideration of the policy last September, with members arguing they should wait for courts to resolve the case of Virginia teen Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board and a lawsuit by Liberty Counsel challenging a nearly identical nondiscrimination policy passed by the Fairfax County School Board.
Grimm’s case, which was expected to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, has since been remanded back to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration.
But perhaps even more importantly, the Virginia Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit against Fairfax County, finding that Liberty Counsel’s clients did not have standing and did not suffer any injury from the passage of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies. As a result, Prince William School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers felt the board had standing — backed up by a legal opinion by Attorney General Mark Herring — to pass its own comprehensive nondiscrimination policy.
“We’ve been through a lot as a school board over this, but this was the right thing to do,” Sawyers told InsideNova in an interview.
Equality Virginia, the commonwealth’s top LGBTQ organization, had focused its efforts on drumming up support for the policy — and LGBTQ nondiscrimination in employment more broadly — during the past week as part of its “PWC Proud: Bringing Equality to Bob Marshall’s Backyard” campaign, referring to the infamous anti-LGBTQ delegate who represents parts of Prince William County and Manassas Park.
Interestingly, Marshall was in attendance at the meeting and registered his disapproval of the proposal, issuing a statement in which he accused pro-transgender advocates of encouraging children to “pump themselves with hormones so they can mimic the opposite sex,” saying that such children may regret their decision later in life.
But the majority of those in the chamber were supportive of the policy change. Supporters had donned purple clothing and stood when pro-LGBTQ speakers testified before the board, as a visual symbol demonstrating their support for the policy. When the final vote was tallied and it became clear the policy had passed, those in the chamber burst into raucous applause.
Danica Roem, the Democratic nominee running against Marshall in November and the first transgender person to win a party nomination for elective office in Virginia, was also in attendance at the meeting. Roem had previously testified in favor of adding nondiscrimination protections last year, prior to announcing her candidacy. She was particularly impressed with the LGBTQ youth who attended the meeting and spoke out publicly in favor of the change, saying they demonstrated tremendous courage.
After the vote, Roem says she was speaking with another LGBTQ advocate, who told her, “We just became the advocates we never had.” She also took issue with some opponents of the policy who offered up offensive rhetoric or medically inaccurate information regarding transgender people. Chiefly, she pushed back against the idea, promoted by Marshall, that transgender children regret their decision to transition, noting that her own transition allowed her to form a family, becoming a girlfriend and stepmother, saying: “It changed my life for the best.”
Loree Williams (Woodbridge) noted that adding nondiscrimination protections does not change Prince William County’s current policy on restroom use. Each individual school’s administrators will continue to have the power to craft their own policies to accommodate transgender students and their privacy in restrooms or changing facilities.
“Nondiscrimination is not about going to the bathroom,” she said.
School board member Justin Wilk (Potomac) brought the house down with what Roem called “one of the greatest civil rights speeches I’ve ever heard.” In his remarks, Wilk said he had called 42 school districts throughout the country that have LGBTQ-inclusive policies and are larger than Prince William County.
Specifically, he asked administrators in those districts if any transgender student had ever assaulted anyone in a restroom, and if any cisgender male student had ever dressed up as a female to enter the girls’ restroom for nefarious purposes — claims made by opponents of LGBTQ rights. Wilk said that he could find no evidence of such occurrences in those school districts, which is why he was casting his vote in favor of adding the LGBTQ protections.
James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, posted news of the policy’s passage on his organization’s Facebook page, writing: “It was inspiring to see so many folks turn out in purple. Great job to all of the local organizers for all of their hard work over the past year to make this a reality.”
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