Bettie Thomas, 10, with zir mother Courtney. Courtesy of Courtney Thomas.

RICHMOND – A new measure sponsored by state Sen. Travis Hackworth, a Republican from Tazewell County, seeks to overturn legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly almost two years ago that requires school districts statewide to adopt a set of guidelines by the Virginia Department of Education in dealing with nonbinary and transgender students. While Hackworth’s Senate Bill 20 wouldn’t repeal the entire law, it would remove the requirement to follow the department’s “model policy,” essentially leaving it up to individual school districts to decide whether they want to adopt the guidance. 

State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County.

Hackworth, who was elected in March to fill the vacancy left by the late Sen. Ben Chafin, said in a phone interview Friday that his bill aims to upend an “unfunded mandate” from Richmond. “Our position is what works in Loudoun, Fairfax or Chesterfield County might not work in Russell or Tazewell County,” Hackworth said. “We elect our school board officials, and we have parents that come out that participate in these elections, which is why we feel like the final decision, if this is enforced, should be made on a local level.”

Advocates for transgender equality fear that overturning the current law could hurt children like Bettie Thomas, 10, of Montgomery County. Bettie began to identify as nonbinary before starting second grade at Christiansburg Primary School after Bettie’s mother Courtney on a summer evening in 2018 read a bedtime story, I am Jazz, a children’s book by Jazz Jennings about transgender children. 

As Courtney Thomas read to her child, Bettie got out of bed and said: “Mom, I know I’m not a boy, but I don’t feel like a girl, am I both?” Thomas, a political science professor at Virginia Tech, just looked at Bettie, and it suddenly dawned on her. For about two years, Bettie had often felt anxious and confused, suffering from bouts of anger. “Zie couldn’t tell us why, and it was because zie didn’t know there was a word for children like zir,” Thomas said in a recent interview, using nonbinary pronouns referring to her child. 

The word was genderfluid. “As soon as zie had a word that captured what zie was feeling, all zir anger and frustration disappeared. And zie was able to live as zir authentic self,” Thomas said.

And Bettie’s coming out to zir family at the time was just the beginning of zir transformation. A 2021 survey by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, shows that trans and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected. The survey also reveals that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in 2020, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

Bettie soon asked zir family to start using the neopronouns zie, zir and zirs rather than the feminine pronouns she, her and hers or the masculine he, him and his. The biggest hurdle, however, was zir acceptance by other children and teachers at school, where Bettie’s request to use nonbinary pronouns when addressing zir in the classroom was denied. “They told us they can’t respect Bettie’s wishes, because there was no guidance for how to address a nonbinary second grader,” Thomas said. 

Bettie’s family was among those advocating for the passage of Senate Bill 161, which cleared the General Assembly in early 2020. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, ordered the Department of Education to create standards to recommendations complying with non-discrimination laws, maintain a safe and supportive learning environment free from distraction and harassment, prevent and respond to bullying and harassment and make sure student privacy is maintained. The department was also instructed to create appropriate sex-based dress codes, and school districts in the commonwealth were tasked with adopting the new model policy by the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

Montgomery County was one of the first school divisions to follow the guidelines. “All of Bettie’s teachers are now using the correct pronouns,” Thomas said. On zir first day in fifth grade at Falling Branch Elementary School last summer, Bettie introduced zirself as gender fluid to zir new classmates, and teachers are allowing zir to use the gender neutral restroom in the counselor’s office. “Zie hasn’t had a single problem this year,” Thomas said. 

But many school divisions statewide have yet to enforce these guidelines. Some rejected them outright – including the counties of Augusta, Bedford, Carroll,  County, Russell, and Warren. 

Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, applauded school districts for rejecting these “poorly crafted guidelines,” saying in an email that Hackworth’s proposal simply corrects the language of the current statute. “After the tragic sexual assaults in Loudoun County, it became even more clear that school boards, not Richmond politicians know best how every child within their schools is protected,” Cobb said, referring to an incident where a student sexually assaulted a schoolmate in a bathroom at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn. 

Hackworth said in the interview Friday that the school districts’ rejections may be fiscally motivated. “A lot of school board members say they’d like to see individual restroom stalls, where nobody can be harrassed, and I’m very much in the same camp, because it’s long overdue that children using restrooms are being protected,” Hackworth said. “But we have many schools that were built in the 1950s, and the cost to have them all renovated is astronomical. That’s why my bill places the final authority on the school boards themselves.” 

Last summer, James Lane, then the state’s superintendent of public instruction, in a memo informed Virginia’s school divisions that like all other mandates on local school boards resulting from General Assembly action, they must fulfill this directive in order to be in compliance with state law. “Local school boards that elect not to adopt policies assume all legal responsibility for noncompliance,” Lane wrote.

Yet there has been little effort in enforcing the guidelines, because the Department of Education doesn’t have the authority to assess penalties or otherwise force local boards to adopt consistent policies. Thomas believes that some divisions skeptical of the guidelines have simply waited in order to “buy some time” until after the last gubernatorial election, which resulted in Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory.  

At their first debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, both Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, hinted that they would defer the authority to the local school boards. “I’ve always felt that school boards have the pulse of the local community, they should be making their decisions,” McAuliffe said. Youngkin was not asked on his position on rights for transgender students that day, and his spokeswoman Macaulay Porter declined to comment Friday when asked if Youngkin would sign Hackworth’s bill if it cleared the General Assembly in its current form. 

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, said in an email that school boards are already required by Title IX of the Civil Rights Act to provide learning spaces where all students are protected from discrimination and harassment, and that the VDOE model policies simply help boards put that law into action. 

“By removing the requirement that school boards adopt policies consistent with the VDOE guidance, Senate Bill 20 undermines Title IX and makes it much more difficult for school boards to effectively implement the law,” Lamneck said. “By doing so, Senator Hackworth would put school boards across the state at significant legal and financial risk.” All of Virginia’s students, including transgender and nonbinary youth, deserve to have a safe, welcoming school environment, Lamneck said. “The VDOE policies are essential to creating public schools where everyone can learn, grow, and thrive,” Lamneck said.

Thomas said that while Bettie’s school district has decided to follow the VDOE guidelines, creating a safe space to learn for transgender students, other children across Virginia are still struggling because local school boards have failed to act. “Repealing the current law would be a blow to their safety and their civil rights in public schools,” she said.

If given the opportunity to discuss SB 20 with Hackworth, Thomas said that she would ask him if he was willing to sit down and talk to Bettie. “It’s easy to demonize transgender children until you look at one,” Thomas said. “Bettie is not a threat to anyone’s safety, Bettie is not trying to force a political agenda on anyone, zie is just trying to live as authentically as zie can. It took a long time for us to give zir the correct words to express that, and that was our failure as parents. Who Bettie is, is authentically who zie feels who zie is on the inside.”

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.