Youngkin’s rules for trans students leave many teens fearful, despondent

Photo by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has released new guidelines that would restrict the rights of transgender students.

In Fairfax, Va., a gender-nonconforming teen who is out at school, but not at home, is terrified their parents will discover the truth under Virginia’s new policies for transgender students. If they find out, the teen is sure, they will refuse to pay for college – and may kick the teen out of their home.

Elsewhere in Virginia, a teen girl is grateful that students who were assigned male at birth will no longer be allowed inside girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms. She is confident sports competitions will be fairer now, too.

And in Chester, Ace Nash, a trans sophomore who has passed as male since starting high school, is wondering if classmates will discover his secret – and what they might say if they do. He feels broken when he imagines seeing his birth name on school records or hearing it from a teacher, as may happen under the new policies.

“If I had kept presenting as female, I would be dead,” Ace said. “I can’t imagine being forced to be female again.”

It’s been a week since the administration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) sharply restricted transgender student rights, debuting guidelines that say trans students must access school facilities and activities, including restrooms and sports teams, that match their sex assigned at birth. The guidelines also make it difficult for students to change their names and pronouns at school and say teachers can refuse to use transgender students’ names and pronouns if it violates their beliefs. And the guidelines suggest parents should be told about students’ gender identities, no matter if the student wants to keep it private.

Virginia’s more than 130 districts have until next month to adopt the policies, the Youngkin administration says. Already, Democratic legislators are vowing defiance, and Youngkin’s guidelines may be vulnerable to legal challenges.

In the meantime, the teenagers who will be most affected by the new policy are trying to figure out how it will reshape their lives. The Washington Post asked students statewide to share how they are feeling, garnering more than 260 submissions across 30 school districts as of Wednesday evening.

The vast majority were from transgender students who wrote in fear. Some who transitioned years ago are worried they will be outed to unsuspecting classmates. Others who are mid-transition, or just beginning to transition, are worried they will be outed to their parents and forced to leave home. Many wrote they are feeling angry, depressed, suicidal.

“Because of it, I’ll probably have multiple breakdowns a day, my grades will drop,” wrote a 16-year-old. “Everything I’ve worked so hard to overcome will have been for nothing.”

Research suggests there are roughly 4,000 transgender teens in Virginia, a state with 1.2 million public school students. Research has also shown that transgender youths are far more likely to attempt suicide.

Still, a handful of teens, most female, wrote to say they are pleased with the guidelines. They wrote they will feel more comfortable in bathrooms and locker rooms limited to students assigned female at birth, especially when dealing with menstrual periods.

Asked about students’ distress, Youngkin spokesman Rob Damschen provided a copy of remarks he said the governor gave to a group of reporters in Loudoun County on Tuesday.

“I would find it very hard to argue that a parent being engaged in a child’s life is inconsistent with that child’s safety,” Youngkin said then. “This is about keeping people safe, but also fully, fully, involving parents into these most important positions.”

Damschen noted that a reporter asked Youngkin what he would say to transgender students who live with parents who do not support their gender identities.

“I would say,” the governor said, “trust your parents.”

– – –

Ace Nash began dressing and appearing as a boy in seventh grade, just before the coronavirus pandemic struck and sent everyone home to learn online for more than a year. He had always felt wrong, but now he felt whole. He had always been male on the inside, but now he looked like it, dressed like it, acted like it. The people he loved treated him like it, too: His mother and closest friends addressed him using his new name and pronouns.

Just before ninth grade, which was in-person, Ace switched to a different school in Chesterfield County Public Schools. Ahead of the school year, he convinced his parents to sign a form so the district would change his name and pronouns in school records. He emailed teachers to request they use his name and pronouns in class. He also started taking testosterone, which deepened his voice.

With luck, Ace figured, no student would ever realize he was trans.

By the beginning of this year, things were going well. His teachers almost never messed up his pronouns or name. No one gave him trouble about using the boys bathroom. Ace – who draws pictures of animals in his spare time and wants to be a psychologist – felt just like any other student.

“The kids who do know don’t care,” he said. “But there are very few who actually know or care at all.” (Ace said he decided to speak to The Washington Post because he believes he will be outed under Youngkin’s policies soon anyway, and he wants people to know how the new rules are affecting trans students.)

Then Youngkin’s administration rolled out new rules. Terror gripped Ace.

He began poring through the 20-page policy. His eyes caught on the sentence: School divisions “shall change the legal name or sex in a student or former student’s official record only if a parent or eligible student submits a legal document, such as a birth certificate.” Ace has never legally changed his name. He is unsure if both parents would let him.

Ace imagined hearing his old name and pronouns in the classroom. He imagined logging into the online learning platform Canvas and seeing his old name on the screen. He logged into Canvas right then, just to check: For now, it was unchanged.

The Chesterfield school district did not respond to a question asking if it plans to adopt the Youngkin administration’s guidelines.

Over the next several days, Ace did not learn much. He was too busy worrying a teacher would approach him about his name or pronouns, although no one did. He worried someone might stop him on the way to the boys bathroom, although no one did that either. Still, Ace began minimizing restroom trips by skipping lunch or waiting until he got home. At night he took melatonin, seeking the release of sleep. It didn’t help.

Ace’s thoughts strayed to dark places. Before this year, Ace said, he has attempted suicide three times, most recently in November, because he was miserable over the wave of anti-transgender legislation appearing across the country. More than 300 bills restricting trans rights have been proposed nationwide, according to a Washington Post analysis, and many target schools.

Since the Virginia guidelines’ release, Ace said, he has felt the impulse to harm himself. He does not know what he will do if he is forced to return to female pronouns and facilities at school.

“I would not be okay,” he said. “I could not deal with that. I would genuinely be a danger to myself.”

– – –

Among students who agree with the new guidelines for transgender students, reasons for support center on the use of traditionally single-sex spaces and activities.

Of the 266 submissions received by The Washington Post, 13 came from students who said they are pleased with the guidelines. Four students said they did not care. The rest – 94 percent – came from students who believe the new guidelines will make their lives worse or endanger their friends’ mental health and well-being. Eighty-two percent of the submissions came from students who identified themselves as LGBTQ.

The Washington Post attempted to contact every student who shared support for the Youngkin administration’s guidelines, but most did not respond. One declined to be interviewed. Only one gave permission for her submission to be quoted.

A 15-year-old boy wrote he is relieved he no longer has to think about girls entering the boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms. Under Youngkin’s policies, he wrote, he will no longer face harassment for refusing to use other students’ requested pronouns.

A 16-year-old wrote the new guidelines will make locker rooms and bathrooms feel safer. The teen wrote she finds it stressful when members of the opposite sex walk in while the teen is changing or using the restroom.

A 17-year-old girl said she will be less concerned about sexual assault. Still another student, a 15-year-old girl, suggested schools were making too many accommodations for a very small population of transgender students.

And another 17-year-old girl, who agreed to be quoted on the condition of anonymity “for fear of backlash from my friends,” wrote the Youngkin administration’s guidelines are overdue.

“It will get the guys out of the girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms and make girls’ sports competitions more fair,” she wrote. “I’m a strong ally and believe everyone has equal value, and love is love, but this change is necessary for safety and fairness.”

– – –

Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti.
Charlotte McConnell of Sterling, Va., leads a rally of parents and activists who support transgender rights before a school board meeting in August 2021 in Ashburn, Va.

In Arlington, two trans teens are trying to figure out just how much the new guidelines will alter who they are.

Ashton, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used for fear of bullying, discovered he was transgender in seventh grade and began transitioning to male a year later. His parents were supportive, and – after wrangling briefly with Arlington Public Schools – he managed to get his names and pronouns changed in school records.

Now a deep-voiced 17-year-old senior and president of the Yorktown High School Gay-Straight Alliance (or GSA) club, Ashton passes as a male, he said. His school has gender-neutral bathrooms and he prefers to use those, but no one would look twice if he used the boys’ restroom. Apart from a small group of students who persist in harassing him, Ashton said, life at school feels almost as comfortable and accepting as life at home.

Until Sept. 16. Ashton learned about the Youngkin administration guidelines when a GSA club chat erupted. Other members were outraged. Ashton typed little, trying to work through his emotions – first disbelief, then anger, then sympathy for transgender friends who do not live in supportive households.

Ashton was relieved to see his school district put out a statement vowing opposition to the guidelines, one of a trio of Northern Virginia districts to do so. A handful of others have signaled they will comply, but most have yet to say anything. Still, Ashton feels unsure Arlington will succeed, so he is making preparations. First up is researching how to legally change his name. Second is trying to wrap his brain around using the girls’ restroom again. That will be more uncomfortable for girls than for him, he said, given he presents as male.

But mostly Ashton wishes he could speak directly to Youngkin. “You have to pay attention to the rights of children,” he would say. “There is nothing wrong or dirty about being trans. It’s just a part of us that we live with.”

Elsewhere in the same district, another trans teen is not sure she will be able to keep that part of herself alive much longer.

The teen, a 17-year-old senior, was assigned male at birth but identifies as female. She came out to her parents a year ago, she said, but they refused to believe her. After several yelling matches, they decided to ignore the problem. Now, the teen and her parents live together uneasily, both sides afraid to broach the “taboo topic,” the teen said. The teen’s parents continue to use her old name and treat her as male. The teen spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from her parents.

School is the teen’s safe haven. Her teachers use her new name and pronouns, and she uses gender-neutral bathrooms. Some friends support her gender transition, encouraging the steps she’s taken – growing her hair out, painting her nails. The teen occasionally tries on dresses and skirts, too, which she says make her feel alive. But she has not dared wear those outside her bedroom.

Under the new guidelines, the teen is preparing for a very different life. No matter what her district says, she believes the guidelines will encourage teachers and student alike to harass transgender children. All she wants, now, is to disappear.

So she will stop using her name and pronouns. Stop painting her nails.

“It’s the kind of thing where you have to present, like, two faces to society at the same time,” she said.

Only, for now, nobody will see her real face.

– – –

Ever since the Youngkin administration guidelines appeared, the gender-nonconforming teenager in Fairfax County has lived in dread of an email from their high school counselor.

The teenager, who is 17 and a senior, spoke on the condition of anonymity because their parents do not know they are gender-nonconforming. The student identifies as neither female nor male and uses he, she and they pronouns. The teen’s close friends at their Fairfax County Public Schools campus know, as do some teachers and the counselor.

Every time the student has discussed gender and mental health with the counselor, the counselor has urged the teen to bring it up at home. Given the new guidelines suggest school staff should inform parents about students’ gender identities, the teen is sure the counselor will be sending an email to their mother and father any minute.

The Fairfax system has not said how it will respond to the new state policies. Superintendent Michelle Reid wrote in a message to families Sunday that the district “remains committed to an inclusive learning environment.”

The teen has known they did not align with any gender for a long time. As a child, it felt wrong when they were told to “go play with the girls.” But the student’s parents do not believe transgender people exist, the teen said, and think being transgender is a ploy for attention.

Once, the teen tried to broach the subject with their parents – who value education – by proposing to fill out college applications as a trans student, perhaps easing the path to admission. The parents, alarmed, refused to let the teen speak with their younger sibling for a week, fearing a mention of trans people might “taint” the younger child’s mind, the teen said.

The teen went public with their gender identity at school this year, announcing a different name and pronouns to friends and teachers. Until this month, the student planned to make it through the rest of senior year by existing as their true self at school and a shriveled version at home. The teen dreams of attending a university in the Northeast and majoring in gender studies. The teen meant to tell their parents about their gender once they were much older.

Under the new guidelines, though, the teen fears their parents will learn the truth now – and can almost feel their future slipping away.

“It would lead to either me not having housing,” the teen said, “or them not being willing to pay for my college.”

Probably both.