by Robert Norris Rigby
Anti-transgender rhetoric, sometimes recommending violence against trans children, dominated a Warren County (which Trump won 66.5%-31.2% in November 2020) School Board meeting Wednesday, July 7, with discussion of “rebellion” against state law. Much of the testimony given during citizen participation was against the Model Policies on the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools, which was not on the agenda for the evening. (videos and agendas of school board meetings can be found here)
About 40 people attended the meeting, and two dozen spoke in opposition to policies welcoming transgender students. One speaker, Gary Gillespie of Front Royal, did suggest at least some accommodation: ”I think it would be a better idea if we would create a separate bathroom for these children, rather than making all of our children conform to this.” Another speaker, Stephanie Short of Front Royal, suggested that the board postpone action, and perhaps consider “making all restrooms single-stall.” Her testimony received little response from the audience.
An examination of the agenda shows that policies about transgender students were not on the agenda for this or future meetings. The state document that speakers addressed is the “Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools,” developed as legally required by the Virginia Department of Education. School boards are required by legislation passed in 2020 to adopt a similar policy by the start of the upcoming school year. Some have already done so; in others there is much debate. The Model Policies were on the official agenda at the school board meeting in Loudoun County on June 22, 2021, where two people were arrested and public comments were closed due to audience outbursts.
The official agenda for the Warren County School Board meeting did include the VSBA (the Virginia School Board Association, a voluntary non-profit not part of state government) policy update. The VSBA document had footnotes about the part of the Code of Virginia on transgender students, but took no stand and did not include text from the policy about transgender students.
One speaker, Mike Mayer of Front Royal said “There are plenty of parents in this county who will tell their daughters if a boy comes into the girl’s locker room to scream at the top of their lungs and kick them in their testicles until their goddam feet fell off.” Mayer also added, “Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina, keep it simple y’all; school is for readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. Say hell no to this abomination…There are two genders, and that’s all folks.” Much of the audience clapped loudly. Another statement from Mayer that received applause was, “I identify as a 15-year-old girl named Veronica, let me hit the showers.”
Kenneth Jackson of Front Royal, a former school board member, said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be thrown in the depths of the sea” – in reference to people who advocate for the Model Policies (quoting from the Christian New Testament, Matthew 18.6). He enjoined the school board to vote against the policy, again referring to drowning of supporters of affirmation of transgender children.
Amber Morris of Front Royal – a current candidate for Front Royal Town Council who appeared to be an organizer for those who came to speak – railed against the “Communist Manifesto,” “misguided and confused children,” “our socialist so-called leaders or…dictators,” etc., and declared in response to the possibility of losing state funding – and to loud applause – that “our children are not for sale.” Morris argued that “the agenda for tonight and the interpretation of these codes and House bills are very convoluted…many people don’t even understand them; I’ve spoken with attorneys over the last 24 hours that also did not comprehend what it was that was facing Warren County by adopting these bills…This is confusing.” Morris asked the school board not to adopt the VSBA item, saying “It is my interpretation …that the School Board will be voting [on]…the transgender policy.” Several other speakers echoed the “our children are not for sale” comment. “Marxism” and “socialism” also were brought up in comments by about half of the two dozen speakers.
Melanie Salins of Front Royal (who spoke immediately after Morris and thanked “everyone who came out”) suggested defying the state law:
“I ask you tonight to be courageous…at what price do we sell our children? You have the full backing of the citizens of this county to fight Richmond on this issue…They cannot take our money and then blackmail us…When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.”
There were a few supporters of policies about transgender students in the audience, but they did not speak. A local transgender woman in attendance said:
“For the first time in a long time, I could not muster the courage to speak. I was afraid and knew it would be futile. They have chosen to not learn about trans people. I could not challenge all of the falsehoods presented in three minutes.”
Another participant displayed a large transgender pride flag.
In the end, the school board voted unanimously against the VSBA updates, although they did not include policies about transgender students. No mention was given on when or if the school board would take up the treatment of transgender students, despite the legal requirement that a policy be adopted by the beginning of the upcoming school year. Students are set to return to classes in Warren County on August 17, and there is no indication that the treatment of transgender students will be addressed by WCPS school board before then.
Is this the sort of Commonwealth we want to live in? Where people speak of kicking transgender children because they have to go to the bathroom? Where people respond to affirmative adults with talk of drowning them? Where laws about nondiscrimination for LGBTQIA+ people are described as tyranny? Let’s hope that a different message gets sent across Virginia, of inclusion, affirmation and welcome for all children in our schools.