Tonight we have a slightly bigger audience than usual, and I would like to warmly welcome everyone to our meeting for this debate on adding gender identity to our nondiscrimination policy—a debate that is so incredibly important for the health and well-being of all of our children and employees in Fairfax County.
For those of you who are interested in how our school board has arrived at this decision, and for those who may be concerned that this policy change might have arisen out of thin air, let me assure you that this board has been at the forefront of this cause for more than a decade. In 2002, this school board asked for an attorney general opinion on whether we had the legal authority to grant protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In March of this year, the Virginia Attorney General ruled that we can, in fact, protect our employees and students from discrimination based on gender identity. That brings us here tonight, to finish the work that so many of our colleagues before us and among us have pioneered.
Our Fairfax County Public Schools today are places noted for their inclusiveness—with students coming from every country in the world and speaking almost every language in the world. We do not tolerate discrimination. Not based on age, race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, marital status, or disability…and tonight we will declare that we do not discriminate based on gender identity either. The truth is, we already do not discriminate based on gender identity in practice—but that protection has never been clearly outlined in our policies, and its implementation has been left up to our well-meaning staff.
So the purpose of tonight’s vote is to reaffirm this board’s belief that we value and accept all of our students and employees for who they are.
In FCPS, we have an increasing number of students self-identifying as transgender and as gender non-conforming. These are our most vulnerable and at-risk students, and it’s critical for our board to ensure that they feel welcomed and supported at the highest levels of our system.
The rate of suicide attempts among transgender and gender nonconforming people is staggering. Whereas 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population has self-reported a suicide attempt, 41 percent of transgender or gender non-conforming people surveyed have attempted suicide. We cannot ignore these statistics, and we cannot lose one more life of a student who believes they aren’t accepted by their society or their school system. Imagine if these were your children—you’d probably do everything in your power to support them. As a board and a community, these are our children, and it’s our duty to protect them.
Unfortunately, in response to our effort to protect these members of our community, fear and distrust have been sown in our community. As a society, we never would have made progress if we had given into unsubstantiated fears. The pioneering Marie Curie once said that “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.' In other words, the fears about this policy change are unfounded and need to be better understood.
Fears we have heard relate to claims that, with this policy change, our practices will change, leading to a wave of students and staff self-identifying as transgender, allowing men uninhibited access to women’s bathrooms and locker-rooms, and encouraging teachers to cross-dress in the classroom.
I cannot emphasize this enough: after we pass this policy tonight, nothing will change in how we handle cases of transgender and gender nonconforming students and employees. They will continue to undergo a thorough vetting process with school staff to ensure their claims are legitimate and made in good faith. This board has never received a concern regarding a bathroom incident. We have never received a concern about a transgender staff member. And we have never received a concern about a transgender student playing on a sports team. Never. This reflects how well our staff has handled these situations to date. In fact, a task force of our staff already has been working proactively to ensure the fidelity of implementation of these practices in all of our schools.
Finally, and most importantly, we are, in fact, being compelled to make this policy change by the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education, which has directed all school districts in the United States to amend their nondiscrimination policies to include “gender identity.” In this light, amending this policy is non-negotiable, unless we want the federal government to come after our federal funding.
To conclude, I would like to speak to our role in history. Many of you might not realize how the building in which we are gathered--Luther Jackson Middle School--relates to our discussion tonight, so let me explain. This school was named for the founder of the Negro Voters League of Virginia, and it served as the only black high school in Fairfax County. For years, black students had to be bused here—some taking hours--to receive their education. This year marks the 50th anniversary of desegregation of Fairfax County Public Schools. You might wonder why it took Fairfax County until 1965 to desegregate—more than a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The leaders of our state organized massive resistance to desegregation and put us on the wrong side of history then.
Friends, 50 years later, we are fighting the same battle that our forebears fought—to provide equal access to our facilities for all of our students. The push for protections based on gender identity is the civil rights issue of our day.
It’s well past time for Fairfax County to be a leader on civil rights issues—not delay this vote and relive our checkered past by putting ourselves at risk of legal action by the federal government, all while standing on the wrong side of history.
I appeal to my colleagues, as we gather in this relic of our past injustices—to search inside for their best selves in tonight’s discussion—selves that do not turn to injecting unwarranted fear and misinformation in our community. Selves that do not relive the civil rights mistakes of the past that drove us to Seneca Falls, to Selma and to Stonewall, but instead envision Fairfax County as Virginia’s leader in proactively protecting all of its students and employees, no matter their gender identity.
I am so proud to join my colleagues tonight—after all the years its taken to bring us here—to stand on the right side of history. And I am proud that 50 years from now, when a future board is debating a new civil rights issue here in this room, our board will be remembered not for postponing or denying civil rights, but for protecting all of our employees and our children.