Thousands of Virginia high school students walked out of school on Tuesday to protest proposed guidelines put forward by Governor Glenn Youngkin that would restrict protections for transgender students.
Students from nearly 100 high schools staged walkouts across the state to protest against the new policies, holding signs criticizing the guidelines and waving pride flags in support of their LGBTQ+ peers.
"We decided to hold these walkouts as kind of a way to … disrupt schools and have students be aware of what's going on," said high school senior Natasha Sanghvi to NBC Washington. Sanghvi is part of Pride Liberation Project, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group that helped organize the walkouts.
Lauren Truong, 16, who led dozens of her schoolmates in a walkout, said several LGBTQ+ students she knows are fearful of how the new policies could affect them. "We want our school districts to stand up for us and support us and say that they'll reject these guidelines," Truong told the Washington Post.
On 17 September, the Virginia department of education announced several rewritten policies affecting transgender students in classrooms. The policy reversals, which are currently under 30-day public comment period, would require students to use school facilities that match their biological sex and make it more difficult for students to change names and gender pronouns by requiring parents to give their approval for students who are minors.
Advocates say the new policies are transphobic and risk the health and safety of transgender students, who could be outed to their parents.
They add the suggested policies are especially difficult for students who had grown used to protections established under the administration of former governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat.
Several students at the protest expressed their fear and disappointment at how the new policies could affect them and their peers.
High school senior Casey Calabia, who is non-binary, told a local news station of Youngkin and the proposed guidelines: "I am scared of this man. My friends are scared of this man. How can he stand there and say he loves this country and loves this state if he wants to hurt us?"
Calabia said they had experienced being misgendered and bullied at their previous school before transferring to a more inclusive environment. They worry about how the policies and increased intolerance could affect the mental health of transgender students.
"I nearly committed suicide. These are really kids who are scared out of their minds because of this policy," Calabia said.
Students also decried the political nature of the proposed rollbacks, especially as Republican politicians continue to advance policies that target LGBTQ+ students in and outside of the classroom.
"These revised guidelines will only hurt students in a time when students are facing unparalleled mental health challenges, and are a cruel attempt to politicize the existence of LGBTQIA+ students for political gain," said Pride Liberation Project in a statement.
If approved by the state's superintendent after the public comment period, Youngkin's proposal could still face legal challenges, say experts, especially given recent federal protections for transgender students that allow them to use whatever bathroom matches their gender identity.