LOUDOUN COUNTY, Va. — The so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has brought both scrutiny and support from people beyond Florida’s borders. The Florida bill signed into law in March forbids instruction on gender orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
Virginia schools, and school board meetings, have become a hotbed for political rhetoric. Because of that, many wonder if the Commonwealth could be the next place to pass similar legislation.
As it stands, there is a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the senate. If his party loses that senate majority, Democrat Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87) thinks it's entirely possible.
“Right now, I think that type of bill has the votes in the House and if the Senate switches over to a different party, I could see that being the case and having a policy like that signed into law in Virginia,” Del. Subramanyam told WUSA9. Subramanyam represents parts of Loudoun and Prince William Counties.
Subramanyam was a staunch opponent of a bill up for debate earlier this year that sought to eliminate required individual school policies that are inclusive of transgender and nonbinary students. That was one of several bills heard in the general assembly that focused on LGBTQIA+ students, and one of several that had the support of Virginia Republican Delegate David LaRock (R-33).
LaRock represents parts of Loudoun, Frederick and Clarke Counties.
“If a child displays what I would I think is accurately, was classified until recently as a disorder, they should be given help and guidance and help to deal with that but not coddled and cause to encourage them to develop a new identity based on thoughts or ideas that they may entertain at a very young age,” LaRock said.
Some students in Northern Virginia schools disagree. Especially for some high schoolers in Fairfax County, their senior year was spent advocating, testifying and rallying for their rights as LGBTQIA+ teenagers.
“The reality is that this rhetoric, it's decentering students. And we're forgetting that schools, they're not supposed to be political pawns,” Aaryan Rawal said.
Rawal is a co-founder of the Pride Liberation Project, a student-led grassroots coalition in Northern Virginia that organizes and advocates for inclusive schools.
“[Schools are] supposed to be places for students to learn, places for students to pursue extracurriculars," Rawal explained. "These bills, they're not doing that. These bills are trying to advance a political agenda in our schools and they're really trying to take away the dignity of a lot of students who are just trying to learn and just trying to be normal, normal students.”
Over the last school year, many of the students involved with the Pride Liberation Project testified in Richmond and rallied against politically motivated community members at Fairfax County school board meetings.
This year lawmakers took aim to reverse what the General Assembly did in 2020 when it ordered Virginia school districts to adopt policies that are inclusive of transgender and nonbinary students. Those policies allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that conform to their gender identity and allow them to use their preferred pronouns and name.
House Bill 988, sponsored by Del. Scott Wyatt (R)-97 and co-sponsored by LaRock, was proposed and discussed in early 2022. That bill failed, but it would have eliminated the requirement that each school board adopts those model policies developed by the Department of Education.
While LaRock was a sponsor on the bill, Subramanyam spoke out against it and said it is the job of the General Assembly to value every single person and keep a policy to ensure school boards adopt protections. However, the bill sponsor and other delegates said school boards should be allowed to opt out and not have a model policy.
“We saw that a number of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills, including bills to deny transgender students access to bathrooms, bills to ban Queer literature in school, bills to ban transgender athletes have come very close to advancing at the General Assembly,” Rawal said. Rawal was one of many Fairfax County Public School students who missed school to testify against the bill in Richmond.
“And so just unlike straight students, and unlike our heterosexual peers, a lot of times we're worrying that we're gonna go to school one day and a lot of those basic protections that we count on are just not going to be there,” Rawal said.
Rawal said he’s nervous about what the road ahead looks like for his fellow students, as he graduates and prepares to go to college in the fall.
That worry comes as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle claim legislation like ‘Don’t Say Gay’ in Florida could end up in General Assembly chambers, depending on the results of the next election.
“The title 'Don’t Say Gay' I think is kind of misconstrues and puts the emphasis on censoring certain words. So I would characterize it as a bill that would severely limit the amount of time that is spent discussing things like sexual orientation and gender identity in a classroom setting, especially without involving parents, would be a good bill to pass. So limiting it in Virginia, as Florida did yeah, that's it, that would be a good thing,” LaRock said.
The topic of books has also been at the forefront of school board meetings across Spotsylvania, Loudoun, and Fairfax Counties. LaRock said that opposition to certain books, including Gender Queer, could come in the form of a bill at the state level.
“I certainly would hope so. Yeah, I think we need to do that for the benefit of children. Children do not benefit and quite the opposite, I think they're harmed when they're overly exposed to sexually explicit material at an early age,” LaRock said.
“The classroom is very often where these ideas are introduced to children. They’re around other children and even in course material and the course materials used treat these lifestyles as being absolutely normal and beneficial and I think glamorized,” LaRock said. “We had drag queens rolling out the library with little kids climbing around on them. These are people that by my definition, and many others are not normal, they display characteristics of male and female, highly sexualized in their dress and presentation. That moves kids in a direction that their normal daily lives would not typically encounter.”
While LaRock and some on the Republican side of the aisle support bills to change laws relating to sexually explicit material and transgender students, Subramanyam said he and other lawmakers’ stance won’t change.
“High school is hard enough and to make these kids go through an experience like that and you still face the bullying and you know, have higher rates of suicide. I mean, we have to do whatever we can to protect these communities. I know I'm committed to that and a lot of others on both sides of the aisle are as well,” Subramanyam said.