Metro Weekly

Virginia Elections 2021: What they mean for the LGBTQ community

Republicans seize fights over school content and LGBTQ inclusion as motivating issues ahead of a hotly contested election.

virginia, election, lgbtq, governor
Terry McAuliffe (left) – Photo: David Kosling/U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Glenn Youngkin – Photo: Flickr.

On Tuesday, Virginia voters will go to the polls to elect their next governor, lieutenant governor, and Attorney General, as well as their local delegate in the Virginia General Assembly. 

The marquee match-up in the governor’s contest pits former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe against businessman Glenn Youngkin, in a race that is historically thought to be indicative of national political trends and predictive for next year’s midterm elections for Congress. As part of his campaign, Youngkin — who has appeared at political events with members of known anti-LGBTQ groups — has leaned into the issue of schools, in an effort to rally his political base and convince some independents and Democrats to back him by touting stories about alleged “indoctrination” and potentially objectionable content in school curricula or in books being carried by school libraries.

The two issues that Youngkin has focused the most on are the alleged introduction of “critical race theory” — a collegiate-level theory that examines the intersection of race and various social, justice, or cultural issues — in schools, and the passage of policies that affirm transgender students’ gender identities, their pronoun usage, and their ability to access gender-affirming facilities.

The latter issue has particularly become the focal point of angst in Loudoun County, where a parent who disrupted a recent school board meeting alleges that his daughter was assaulted in a bathroom by a male student at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn on May 28. Conservative news outlets have claimed the assailant was wearing a skirt at the time of the incident and identifies as “gender fluid” — although mainstream outlets like WTOP and The Washington Post have been unable to confirm those details. (UPDATE: The mother of the boy accused in the assaults has since told The New York Post that her son does NOT identify as transgender or gender-fluid, despite occasionally choosing to wear skirts.)

A Loudoun County judge found last month that there was evidence to suggest, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that the accused had forced himself upon the alleged victim, who testified in court that she had “hooked up” with her alleged assailant twice before the May 28 incident but had not given consent the third time, reports WTOP. The alleged assailant was disciplined after the incident and transferred to Broad Run High School, where he has since been accused of assaulting a second student. The county’s superintendent has since apologized for the mishandling of the incident and announced that Loudoun County Public Schools will pursue a major overhaul of its disciplinary procedures in incidents where accusations of sexual harassment or assault have been levied.

Social conservatives and skeptics of gender identity have seized upon the Loudoun assaults to rail against a policy, adopted in August, that allows transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identities, alleging that the policy — which was not in place at the time — led to the Stone Bridge assault.

That decision by LCPS to adopt the pro-transgender restroom policy is consistent with a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision finding that barring trans students from gender-affirming facilities constitutes illegal sex-based discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, as well as a law passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly last year that directs local school boards to craft policies that address the needs of transgender students — based on so-called “model policies” adopted by the Virginia Department of Education.

The debate over those model policies has been far-reaching, with the bulk of school boards throughout the commonwealth rejecting pro-transgender policies, and a few more socially liberal jurisdictions adopting them, including the cities of Richmond and Chesapeake, Albemarle County, Chesterfield County, and, most recently, Prince William County. Other counties — notably a number in the Richmond suburbs and exurbs — have ignored the “model policies” and adopted their own policies that they say are “consistent” with the spirit of the 2020 law, according to Virginia Public Media News.

See also: Two Loudoun County teachers join Tanner Cross’s lawsuit challenging district’s pro-transgender policies

Critics contend that policies allowing transgender youth to use bathrooms or locker rooms matching their gender identity only facilitate potential sexual assaults or expose children to highly sexualized issues that they should not be aware of, while proponents of gender-affirming policies say it’s the only way to ensure transgender students are treated fairly, provided with a process for registering complaints regarding harassment or discrimination, and not subjected to a hostile learning environment at the hands of peers and school administrators.

Fight over transgender rights or critical race theory — or, as in Fairfax County, the decision to ban some LGBTQ-themed books, based on their LGBTQ or adult content, or outrage over a survey that asked middle and high school students questions about their personal identity or family life — have fueled an increased in support for Youngkin and other Republicans. In September, the Republican-led Stafford County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution condemning the alleged inclusion of “critical race theory” in schools and preventing teachers from asking students their pronouns, threatening to potentially defund specific projects or initiatives involving critical race theory, racism, or transgender rights.

Additionally, the GOP has seized upon comments by McAuliffe implying that he would not allow parents to censor school curriculum or ban books based on their personal whims to paint Democrats and teachers as pushing a sinister agenda in the classroom. In recent weeks, Free to Learn Action, an advocacy group backed by the right-wing Concord Fund, has been airing ads targeting McAuliffe over his comments on education curriculum and linking it to a spike in the number of students who failed to meet standards of learning in 2020 — a year marked by school closures and virtual learning — as well as the alleged Loudoun assaults and the Fairfax County book controversy, reports CBS. Those ads appear to have gained traction, as recent polls have shown a swing in Youngkin’s direction.

Against this backdrop, it would seem likely that, should Youngkin win the governorship, and particularly if Republicans wrest control of the House of Delegates from Democrats tomorrow, Virginia House lawmakers could move to rescind the VDOE’s model policies, reverse the pro-trans education law, and even refuse to move forward with a bill calling for a voter referendum that would repeal the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage. Some Republicans seeking General Assembly seats have gone further, railing against LGBTQ rights or expressing support for anti-LGBTQ causes, such as pushing back against the state’s ban on conversion therapy — leaving little to the imagination about what they might consider should they be elected to office.

Photo: Fry1989, via Wikimedia.

House Republicans would also likely seek to reverse the commonwealth’s ban on conversion therapy or restrictions on the use of the “gay or trans panic” defense, but such actions would be less likely to gain traction in the State Senate. Yet even if some statewide LGBTQ laws could not be repealed — assuming all 21 Senate Democratic Caucus members managed to stand firm — it would not be shocking to see local school boards, empowered by a Youngkin administration, either reject pro-transgender policies outright or amend their existing policies amid what have proven to be contentious school board meetings.

LGBTQ representation in the legislature could also significantly decrease following Tuesday’s election. Following Del. Mark Levine’s (D-Alexandria) loss in the primary, the number of LGBTQ lawmakers will decrease from six to five, and potentially to as little as two or three. While Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) isn’t up for re-election until 2023, Delegates Dawn Adams (D-Richmond) and Joshua Cole (D-Stafford) are already considered two of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and even Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), the first out transgender person elected to a state legislature, could face a tough race if Youngkin’s overall margin of victory over McAuliffe expands significantly. Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Doug Ward, another out LGBTQ candidate seeking office this fall, faces an uphill battle in a Republican-leaning mostly rural and exurban district in Northern Virginia.

That said, it’s unclear whether the Republicans’ key issue — parental control over schools — will have the level of traction that it seems to have within the conservative media environment. Even Roem, in a recent interview with Metro Weekly, noted that she had only heard about concerns relating to education curriculum or critical race theory from two constituents as she was canvassing for her own campaign and other Democratic candidates.

Meanwhile, Equality Virginia Advocates, the political arm of the state’s top LGBTQ rights organization, and the Human Rights Campaign PAC, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, have thrown their support behind Democrats in Tuesday’s election. In the case of Equality Virginia, it has been seeking to reward legislators who have been supportive of many of the pro-LGBTQ bills that have passed the legislature and been signed into law since Democrats gained control of the General Assembly last year. For HRC, their focus has largely been on the three statewide offices on the ballot, throwing support behind McAuliffe, lieutenant governor nominee Hala Ayala (D-Woodbridge), and Attorney General Mark Herring.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the alleged assailant in the Stone Bridge High School does not identify as gender-fluid, despite conservative media outlets claiming he does. 

See also:

Conservatives fume over Twix video featuring non-binary child

Florida teacher receives death threats after taking students to gay bar on field trip

Ohio high school students say their fall play was canceled because it had a gay character

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