In Virginia, a battle is raging over a new transgender rights policy passed by the Loudoun County School Board this month.
The policy, which abides by a state mandate to support transgender youth in schools, requires teachers and administrators to address students by their preferred names and pronouns according to their gender identity. It also allows transgender students to participate in athletics and use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity rather than their biological sex.
The policy’s sole purpose is to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students. But some Loudoun County community members have vastly different ideas of what a safe environment means.
Three teachers are involved in a lawsuit to halt enforcement of the policy, claiming that it endangers students and violates teachers’ religious freedom. One plaintiff is Byron Cross, an elementary school gym teacher who spoke out against the use of gender-affirming pronouns at a school board meeting in May.
“I’m a teacher but I serve God first,” Cross said during the meeting. “I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa because it’s against my religion. It’s lying to a child, it’s abuse to a child, and it’s sinning against our God.”
Cross’ comments shed light on a broader power struggle over whose rights matter more: those of teachers to assert their religious beliefs in the classroom, or those of transgender students to be themselves.
Even if religious values had a place in schools, which they don’t, it’s utterly backward to think that affirming a child’s gender identity is abusive. In reality, it’s abusive to refuse to accept a child’s identity, and teachers who do so contribute to the harassment and discrimination transgender children face.
More than a third of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and according to Gillian Branstetter at the National Women’s Law Center, it’s a common misconception that the majority of anti-trans discrimination comes from other students.
“Oftentimes the people who are most targeting these kids aren’t their peers but are the adults in their lives, like their teachers or school administrators,” Branstetter said. “It shouldn’t be a question whether a teacher can put their opinions over the well-being of a child.”
If teachers in Loudoun County are permitted to put their personal beliefs above the school system’s policy regarding pronouns and access to appropriate facilities, transgender students will be denied any sense of safety or security on school grounds.
“It opens the door to this patchwork where a student has to wonder whether their most basic civil rights are going to be respected every time the bell rings and they change classrooms,” Branstetter said.
In a strange and twisted way, teachers like Cross believe they’re protecting students by refusing to affirm their gender identity. But it has been well documented that transgender youth are safer and healthier in an accepting environment, while they are isolated and victimized by the rejection of their identity.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says that anti-trans ideology typically stems from a resistance to change.
“There is a significant and vocal portion of the American population who really feel like the country is becoming one they don’t recognize anymore,” he said. “Progress always comes with backlash.”
All three teachers suing Loudoun County Public Schools identify as Christian, and they cite their religious beliefs as the reason they cannot use gender-affirming pronouns. Of course, they’re allowed to value the biblical definition of manhood and womanhood and to believe that transgenderism is a sin.
But they’re not allowed to force those beliefs onto their students.
A teacher’s acceptance can be pivotal for a transgender student. Young transgender people are significantly more likely than their cisgender peers to drop out of school, struggle with mental health, or take their own lives.
Without a support network at school, these trends aren’t likely to change.
“We know how doing nothing for these children turns out,” Branstetter said. “We don’t have to wonder. A good teacher can save your life, and that is particularly true for a student who feels isolated, who feels like nobody understands them.”
So many transgender youth feel misunderstood because society hasn’t yet accepted the existence and validity of transgender people at every age.
“The notion of being transgender feels so new to so many people that they are not yet comfortable with us, and they’re definitely not comfortable with the idea of somebody being trans at a young age,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “That’s what’s underneath this all and that’s why they’re doing these mental gymnastics to justify how they’re thinking.”
That mental gymnastics comes at the expense of transgender students. America’s teachers chose a career centered around the growth and development of young adults, and they need to put their students first.
If Cross and the other teachers involved in the lawsuit can’t put their personal and religious beliefs aside, they should step down from their position at Loudoun County Public Schools. There’s no place for hate and discrimination in gym class.