Seth Oldham wants his children’s first full in-person year at Monticello High School to be boring.
“I want for this to be a non-issue,” Oldham said of his children’s gender identities. “Gray’s a guy. He goes in and he just does the stuff with the guys. And Cyd is non-binary. Frankly, who cares? Like to what extent does it really, really matter whether Cyd is a girl or a boy? They’re just doing their classes and doing their homework and whatever. So I want for the school to help continue to make this be boring.”
To help schools do that, the Albemarle County school division has drafted a policy aimed at protecting transgender and gender-expansive students that the School Board is expected to vote on Thursday. The 11-page policy aims to ensure that students like Gray and Cyd don’t face discrimination while at school and are supported by their teachers.
Gray, a transgender boy, will be in 10th grade at Monticello; Cyd will be a senior.
So far, they’ve had positive experiences in the county schools, and Oldham said he wants to see that continue — “for the teachers to continue to be understanding and use the kids’ names and pronouns,” he said.
All school boards in Virginia are required to adopt policies regarding the treatment of transgender students by the start of the 2021-22 year. Albemarle County is one of the few divisions in the area eyeing a standalone policy. Other districts, including Charlottesville City Schools, adopted policy updates provided by the Virginia School Boards Association. The Charlottesville School Board signed off on the policy revisions in June.
Gender-expansive is a collective term that includes transgender and nonbinary people, all of whom having a gender identity that doesn’t conform to the one they were assigned at birth.
For Albemarle, several of the provisions in the draft policy are covered by the division’s nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies. The nondiscrimination policy has included sexual orientation and gender identity since 2015.
Under the draft policy, every student is entitled to be addressed by the name and pronouns the student prefers and to have access to the bathroom and locker room that align with their gender identity.
The policy also outlines the scope of parent involvement in the process for students who want to transition and calls on school administrators to keep in mind that gender-expansive students might not be supported at home.
For families that aren’t supportive, Ross Holden, the School Board attorney for Albemarle, said the division would offer services to help families and students address the issue.
Oldham said his wife received support from local organizations such as PFLAG Blue Ridge, while he did his own research.
“I have done some reading, learning about how kids who don’t have an accepting environment suffer, and how much better the outcomes are for kids in houses where their names are used, and their pronouns are used,” he said. “It’s like night and day, so that made it sort of a no-brainer for me.”
Gray came out to his dad in sixth grade, and Oldham said that took some getting used to.
“The first time I tried to say ‘he’ for the kid who I formerly knew as my daughter was brutal; my brain just exploded,” he said. “And now, I’ve done it enough times, and I don’t even think about it.”
Oldham said both of his children are happy getting to be the people they see themselves as.
“I’m sort of amazed at how comfortable they are in themselves,” he said. “I sort of imagined myself going through something like that, and I think I would have a really hard time with that. I would feel like everyone was looking at me or whatever. But they’re just doing their thing, and it’s great to see.”
Ensuring that his children are called by the correct names and pronouns is essential, Oldham said.
“I can’t imagine a world where the kids were misgendered by their teachers,” he said. “That would be awful for them. I think that’s something that kids in other places have to struggle with. It’s not anything that Gray has ever had any problem with. His teachers have been great.”
Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, said the state guidance regarding using a student’s chosen name and pronouns is “an incredible game changer.”
“The research shows us that when transgender students in at least one setting, whether that’s at home or in a club or at school, in at least one setting if they’re able to use their chosen name and their pronouns, the rates of suicide ideation and attempt go down drastically,” Lamneck said. “That is such an incredibly simple and affirming way to make sure that transgender students are able to go through school.”
Under state law, the policies need to be at least consistent with the Virginia Department of Education’s model policies, which touch on everything from applicable nondiscrimination laws and the prevention of bullying and harassment to the maintenance of student records and students participating in gender-specific school activities, events and use of school facilities.
School activities and events do not include athletics, but the Virginia High School League has allowed transgender students to play the sport consistent with their gender identity for several years.
The Family Foundation of Virginia and other groups challenged the state guidelines in a lawsuit, which was dismissed late last month.
In an amicus brief filed by Equality Virginia in support of the policies, the Oldham family shared their story along with several others. Seth Oldham also spoke in support of Albemarle’s draft policy during last month’s board meeting.
“I feel the people who are opposed to this and the people who want to marginalize my kids are very comfortable, and they’re very vocal in their work to do that,” he said. “I think that it’s important for people to know that there are other perspectives.”
Oldham thinks some of the opposition is because people don’t like new things.
“It just takes a little while to get used to things being a different way,” he said. “… People didn’t like white people and Black people drinking from the same water fountain for a long time, until it started happening.”
Several other people spoke against the policy at the board meeting, saying that it would violate the rights of parents, among other concerns. Debates over transgender student policies have become flashpoints at school board meetings across Virginia this summer, with some boards rejecting the model policies.
James Lane, state superintendent for Virginia schools, said in a July 30 memo that school boards that don’t adopt policies as required by law should consult with their attorney and liability insurance provider.
“Local school boards that elect not to adopt policies assume all legal responsibility for noncompliance,” he wrote.
One big issue for people opposed to Albemarle’s draft policy are the provisions regarding bathroom and locker room use for transgender students. Allowing students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity hasn’t led to an increase in sexual assaults or violent crimes, as some commenters have feared, according to Learning for Justice.
“… It is important to note that both gender-neutral bathrooms and access to non-stigmatizing bathrooms and locker rooms have existed in some [Albemarle County public] schools for multiple years, without the fears association with this concern coming to fruition,” said Lars Holmstrom, an equity specialist with the county, during an information session about the policy last month.
In a years-long case involving Virginia student Gavin Grimm, a federal appeals court said denying a transgender student access to the bathroom that matches their gender identity is discriminatory. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided not to take up the case, which left in place the lower court ruling.
Oldham said the issue seems overblown and silly to him.
“Obviously, I’d like for them to be able to use the bathroom that makes sense to them, but so far, I don’t think that’s been a problem,” he said.
Lamneck said the state law and model guidance stemmed from conversations that Equality Virginia had with school districts and requests for more guidance on how to create more inclusive environments for LBGTQ students. By having all school districts adopt policies, a goal of the law is to ensure more consistent experiences for transgender and gender-expansive students.
“Countless families invest so much time and energy in educating these schools so that their children have just the basic rights that every other student in that school has,” Lamneck said, adding the next step is for school systems to accurately and thoughtfully implement the policies.
Other states have similar policies in place, they said.
“Schools across the country know and understand that when inclusive policies are in place, it’s not just the LGBTQ students that thrive; it has a positive impact on the entire student body,” they said.