Transgender woman working and using smartphone at home

Ranger Balleisen was with his friends at a Starbucks when he received an alarming text in his Gender Sexuality Alliance group chat. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration proposed guidelines restricting the rights and protections of transgender students like Balleisen in Virginia public schools.

“A sense of dread just kind of filled me,” said Balleisen, a senior at McLean High School in Fairfax County. “It was kind of terrifying.”

For over a year, Balleisen and other trans students in Virginia were able to use restrooms corresponding with their gender, have their name and pronouns respected by staff, and have school records with sensitive personal information kept confidential. With one proposed policy, the Youngkin administration put all those rights in danger.

Balleisen, one of the lead organizers of the Pride Liberation Project, a youth-led LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization, said the group immediately sprung into action. They demanded that the Virginia Department of Education “revoke its draft revisions” and for school districts to reject the proposed policies. 

The Pride Liberation Project then planned for Sept. 27 walkouts across Virginia in response to the proposed guidelines that would endanger trans and nonbinary students. Thousands of students walked out of nearly 100 Virginia schools in protest to Youngkin’s model policies, highlighting the latest wave of youth resistance and pushback against anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation targeting youth nationwide.

At about 10:30 a.m., more than 100 students trickled out of McLean High School and gathered in the parking lot, waving flags and signs painted with the transgender Pride colors. “Outing students is dangerous,” read one sign. “Tear down bigotry, not our kids!”

The proposed model policies will no longer allow students to use public school facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms, or partake in extracurricular activities aligned with their gender identity. It prevents students from using their gender-affirming names and pronouns without parental permission or legal documents. The policies also block school districts from creating guidelines that would “conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.”

In 2020, legislation passed requiring Virginia school districts to adopt trans-affirming guidelines consistent with model policies created by the state’s Department of Education. The policies established protections for trans youth in public schools, such as allowing students to use gender-affirming names and pronouns without legal documentation and to use facilities aligned with their gender identity. The policies also protected the confidentiality of students’ information.

“[The guidelines] saved my life. I’m not even being dramatic,” said Casey Calabia, a senior and lead organizer at Pride Liberation Project. “They were absolute cornerstones for LGBTQ rights here in Virginia.”

Pride Liberation Project organizers say these new guidelines will discourage kids from coming out, which can cause physical and mental harm, including self-hate and self-harm.

“School obviously should be a safe place where we’re all allowed to express ourselves,” said Saehee Perez, a senior at McLean High School and organizer at Pride Liberation Project. “When there’s that constant threat of being outed to our family looming over us, it’s a little hard to do that.”

According to the latest GLSEN School Climate Survey, nearly 60% of LGBTQIA+ students in Virginia were verbally assaulted because of their gender expression; 23% were physically assaulted. Studies have also shown anti-trans policies and harassment are detrimental to trans students’ mental health. Nearly half of LGBTQIA+ youth who wanted mental health care were unable to get it due to the fear of obtaining parental permission, and about half of trans and nonbinary students fear being outed, according to The Trevor Project’s 2022 national mental health survey.

Organizers at McLean High School emphasized that—while all parts of Youngkin’s drafted guidelines were harmful—the clause that denied students counseling services “pertaining to gender” without parental permission was particularly dangerous because it would intentionally out students to their families. 

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Youngkin, did not respond to specific questions for this story. “While students exercise their free speech today, we’d note that these policies state that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment,” Porter said in a statement.

Shannon McKay, the executive director of He She Ze and We, a Richmond, Virginia-based nonprofit offering support and resources for caregivers of transgender and nonbinary family members, said the new policies ignore “the trust and rights of parents with trans kids.” As a parent of a trans daughter, McKay said she is afraid that trans kids will experience bullying and harassment if current protections are stripped away. 

“As a parent, I’m definitely concerned that my kid … might not have the same access to all the things that she has now,” McKay said. “[A]nd that it might also give that permission for kids in the school to lash out at her if they want to.”

Amy Cannava, a veteran school psychologist specializing in LGBTQIA+ youth, said she was furious and terrified when she first heard of the proposed guidelines. Having worked with many queer students during her career, she knows that not all LGBTQIA+ students have supportive parents. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 national survey, fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary youth live in gender-affirming homes, and more than half have considered suicide in the past year. However, having gender-affirming spaces available for trans youth helps significantly lower these rates. 

“They’ve faced dire consequences that I couldn’t even imagine,” Cannava said, noting that some queer students she knew were disowned by their families. “They rely on the school as a safety net, and that’s kind of kept them emotionally afloat. The notion of losing that safety net has been horrifying.”

Cannava said the proposed guidelines are a breach of confidentiality between students and counselors regarding sensitive and private information. If enacted, she worries how she and other counselors would continue their practices ethically.

“The reality is our professional ethics forbids us from outing a student without their explicit consent,” said Cannava. “So the question then becomes: am I going to risk losing my certification or my licensure because I’ve done my job correctly, or my job because the policy is one that I can’t uphold?”

Experts have said Youngkin’s model policies violate state and federal laws. Some, including Virginia’s first elected trans delegate, Danica Roem, suggested the guidelines violate the Virginia Human Right Act. In part, the law protects individuals in schools from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. State Sen. Jennifer Boysko and Del. Marcus Simon, who co-created the legislation directing school districts to adopt trans-inclusive guidelines, also denounced Youngkin’s policies.

School officials in parts of Virginia have also doubled down on their support for trans students, with the Richmond City Public School Board formally rejecting the new policies. Earlier this month, the Fairfax County School Board released a statement expressing their commitment to supporting trans and “gender-expansive” students after parents, students, and employees held a rally opposing Youngkin’s proposed guidelines.

Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization, said Youngkin’s model policies are a clear political attack against trans and nonbinary kids. She said kids “deserve the dignity and respect to come out and share their stories at a pace that makes sense for them.”

Youngkin’s policies are expected to take effect after the 30-day public comment period ending on Oct. 26. More than 65,000 comments have already been submitted. Both Rahaman and McKay also stressed the importance of local elections, such as school board races, which hold the power to create LGBTQIA+-affirming policies and spaces in schools. 

Moving forward, Pride Liberation Project organizers said they will continue to challenge Youngkin’s model policies beyond the September walkout. They plan to hold rallies at school board meetings across Virginia, urging the community to join and pressure school board members to reject the guidelines.

While the existing trans-affirming guidelines weren’t “perfect,” Balleisen said they made him feel safer at school. The new policies would end that.

“We wouldn’t be able to live the way that we want to,” he said. “We would not have all of the safety that existed for us in the past.”

David Tran is a writer based in the D.C. area. He has an interest in covering stories related to race, identity, entertainment, and internet culture. His work has appeared in Washingtonian, Richmond Times-Dispatch,...