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In Virginia, transgender issues kick up a storm in schools

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Rights for transgender students has become a hot-button political issue in the United States./AFP
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Nov 01, 2022 - 09:21 AM

McLEAN, UNITED STATES — When the Republican governor of Virginia announced that he would move to restrict the rights of transgender students, LGBT activists reeled in shock and indignation.

Since then, campaigners have mobilized to find the most effective response on this hot-button issue — one that has been used as a wedge by several right-wing candidates to win supporters ahead of next week’s midterm elections.

Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer who took office early this year and is rumored to have presidential ambitions, says he defends “parents’ rights” and wants to put them “at the center” of decisions about their children.

Youngkin’s draft guidelines, which have been delayed over legal questions, would stipulate that a transgender student can only be called by a different name if his or her parents ask school staff in writing. The same applies to use of pronouns.

Opponents say this could put at risk some students who have not told their parents for fear of a backlash.

Students must also, according to the guidelines, use the toilets corresponding to their “biological sex” and not their gender identity, and participate in sports activities on the same basis.

LGBT activists denounce the proposed rules as cruel and divisive.

“This is not about parents’ rights,” Ranger Balleisen, a 17-year-old transgender high school student in McLean, Virginia, tells AFP.

“This is about attacking trans students and using trans students to push his political agenda, and that is unfair… It’s unsafe for us,” adds Ranger, a member of the Pride Liberation Project, which organized a high school walkout in late September that the group says involved more than 12,000 students.

‘Radical left’ 

Youngkin, who won office in part on a pledge to restore the role of parents in decision-making about their children’s education, is unraveling measures favorable to transgender students that were put in place under his Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam, and supported by many school officials.

By doing this, he is sending “another signal to his Republican base,” according to Matt Dallek, a political historian and a professor at George Washington University’s graduate school of political management.

Youngkin is showing them he is “fighting a war to take back the school from what they view as the radical left,” Dallek told AFP.

While conservatives are hardly new to the nation’s decades-old culture wars, they are fighting with renewed resolve thanks to a strategy used by former president Donald Trump, he explains.

“One thing that Trump showed very effectively is that if you can weaponize cultural issues, it can really mobilize people,” Dallek says.

And with a firmly right-leaning Supreme Court taking away the constitutional right to abortion this summer, the conservative movement feels the wind billowing its sails.

Divisive issue 

Given that backstory, issues surrounding those who identify as transgender have cropped up repeatedly in campaigning for the November 8 midterms, as Republicans vie to seize control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In a sign of the heated debate in Virginia, more than 70,000 comments were posted on the public forum dedicated to Youngkin’s proposal.

Many are vehemently opposed, but many posts strongly support the measures.

“Schools are for education, not indoctrination,” said one. “Parents should have rights to know what decisions their minor children are making,” said another.

The rise in legislative proposals to restrict transgender rights has alarmed activists and non-governmental organizations, and raised concerns about a possible increase in suicides among transgender youth.

“Calling someone by their preferred name is a simple and easy way to show respect. By contrast, refusing to do so is an undeniable display of disrespect,” the Virginia branch of the civil rights organization NAACP said.

Youngkin, who has crisscrossed the country in recent weeks to stump for Republican candidates, remains steadfast.

“Children don’t belong to the state, they belong to families,” he has said.

He could face a legal battle. Some schools have already announced that they will reject his rules, and experts have questioned the legality of his proposals.

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