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Class Clown

Glenn Youngkin Enlists in the Republican Governors’ War on Trans Kids

The GOP used to pass laws to scapegoat marginalized groups. Now it’s turning to executive fiat instead.

Nic Antaya/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin

In defiance of state and federal law, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin announced Friday a new mandate to enshrine discrimination against trans students in school district policy. Should this “model policy,” drafted under Youngkin Education Department appointees, go into effect as anticipated in late October, schools will have no obligation to respect the rights of trans and nonbinary students, and indeed could be compelled not to.

Under the new policy, the state will require trans and nonbinary students to out themselves to their parents to obtain permission to be called by their name and pronouns and to use the correct bathroom. “By outing LGBTQ+ students who have not had conversations with their parent, Youngkin and his Dept. of Ed are willing to subject LGBTQ+ students to abuse,” said Equality Virginia on Twitter on Saturday. At the same time, even if a parent affirms their child’s gender, individual teachers and school employees can still refuse to honor a student’s gender and pronouns if they believe it violates what the policy characterizes as their “constitutionally protected” right to reject them. In essence, the state is saying parents have the right to determine their child’s gender, but that right is only guaranteed if their child is not trans.

The Youngkin model policy sends the message that trans and nonbinary students should be subject to further judgment and discrimination. It is also an explicit challenge to the U.S. Department of Education, which in 2021 instructed schools to respect trans students’ rights under Title IX, after the Supreme Court’s decision affirming trans rights in Bostock v. Clayton County. Virginia itself is home to the landmark case Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, in which a Virginia student successfully challenged a school policy that had barred him from the male restroom because he is trans, on the grounds that the school board had violated his rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.

Youngkin’s new policy will not go into effect immediately, and several Virginia school boards and school board members have vowed to keep protections for trans students. The policy is sure to be immediately challenged in court. Citing the state’s Human Rights Act (which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity in public accommodations, including schools), Virginia Delegate Danica Roem said, “Executive fiat does not overrule state law.” But as we have seen in other states led by Republican governors, they are all too willing to push the boundaries of the law when it suits them. They know and perhaps even count on the fact that in the prolonged months it can take for courts to weigh the legality of their directives, the damage will already be done.

It wasn’t that long ago that when a governor wanted to scapegoat an already marginalized group, they tried to pass laws. The war on trans people fought in state legislatures across the country in 2021 ramped up in 2022, and has expanded beyond where most people presume laws are made.

Today, governors are just going for it: Greg Abbott in Texas directed the state’s child protection agencies to investigate the parents of trans kids, after the state legislature rejected a proposed law defining gender-affirming care as child abuse; Ron DeSantis in Florida appointed health administration officials who went around the state legislature to ban Medicaid coverage for all gender-affirming care and adopted guidelines that would severely restrict gender-affirming care for minors; and now, Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, who, failing to stop a statewide directive that schools adopt nondiscrimination policies to protect trans students, simply issued his own.

Youngkin is clearly drawing on these other MAGA Republican governors in both the cruel substance of his directives and the methods by which he rolls them out. The governor announced this new discriminatory education policy through an exclusive to the Daily Wire, the website founded by Ben Shapiro, while neglecting to send press releases to Virginia media, a move that echoed DeSantis permitting only Fox News to cover the signing of an election restrictions bill. Youngkin has also invoked narratives from conservative media, such as the idea that “parents’ rights” are under attack from nondiscrimination policies meant to protect trans students from being outed, saying in August that schools have an “obligation” to inform parents. He’s championed right-wing microcelebrities like a Loudoun County gym teacher who was disciplined after announcing he would refuse to respect trans students’ pronouns. The model policy is meant to “protect” a teacher like him.

While Youngkin’s new education policy may seem like an extreme turn for him, in truth, he made no secret of his politics on trans rights. As a candidate, he repeatedly leaned on a story alleging a “gender fluid” student had assaulted a girl in a women’s bathroom at school, as if it was an example of the kind of deception that requires the exclusion of trans students from the correct bathrooms. (His retelling was misleading both in its claims about the student’s gender identity and in the facts of the case.) On day one in office, Youngkin issued an executive order directing the state attorney general to investigate the school district where the assault occurred, which resulted in subpoenas reportedly seeking from certain school employees “every Facebook post” about Title IX and the school policies on trans students. Youngkin appointed a deputy education secretary who had voted against a nondiscrimination policy protecting trans students and who had shared a story on Twitter that said trans women were men suffering from “mental illness” and “sexual perversion.” Still, some political observers insisted Youngkin could represent an alternative to the politics of Trump, because his dehumanization comes in a “dad” vest. Meanwhile, he is off to campaign for election denier and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

Youngkin’s discriminatory education rules targeting trans students were likely aided by the acceleration of violent anti-trans rhetoric on the right. Over the last few months, Pride and drag events in multiple states were protested and menaced by far-right groups and individuals, including neo-Nazis and Christofascists as well as the 31 Patriot Front members who were arrested in Idaho en route to an all-ages Pride in the Park celebration. In some cases, state and local Republican leaders lent their platforms to these threats, like when the Texas GOP official Twitter account sent out an “alert” about a specific drag brunch, where later neo-Nazis showed up with swastika and SS flags. Or the time an Idaho state legislator invited members of a group present at the insurrection on January 6, 2021, to a campaign event where they called on the community “to go head-to-head” with people at Pride.

This is a lethal mix—calls to street violence flowing from moral panic about trans kids, creating an enabling environment for governors to try to exclude trans people from public life by fiat, which in turn puts a target on trans people. “What we need is to not be political pawns,” said Rivka Vizcardo-Lichter of the Virginia LGBTQ+ group Pride Liberation Project. This is an overwhelming and dangerous situation, fueled by those in power and those they hope will keep them there. We’ve departed governance, as Katelyn Burns pointed out in 2021. We’ve arrived at something else, sometimes shorthanded as “triggering the libs” or “political stunts.” But it can and should more accurately be described as anti-democratic and fascistic.