Youngkin’s Rhetoric of ‘Parental Rights’ Abandons Students Like Us

Throughout his campaign for Virginia governor, Glenn Youngkin embraced the rhetoric of “parental rights,” allowing it to guide his campaign’s position on key issues, including mask mandates and diversity efforts in our K-12 system.

To be clear, there is a dire need to ensure that parents have a voice in our education. The disregarded mental health concerns, failure to appropriately implement accommodations for disabled students, and lackluster equity responses during the COVID-19 pandemic made clear the school systems were largely ill-equipped to handle community concerns. As students, we are acutely aware of the difficulty in engaging with education leaders: We constantly raise concerns that fall onto deaf ears. We can only imagine the similar frustrations of parents and teachers. 

Nonetheless, the failure of education leaders to address the needs of community members is not partisan but institutional. It is abundantly clear that the convoluted processes of school boards are not suited for widespread stakeholder engagement. But Gov. Youngkin’s embrace of parental rights is not centered on improving community relationships. Instead, he exploits the language of parental rights to attack marginalized students, with the goal of advancing his political prospects.

Before he even assumed office, Youngkin supported efforts to censor books, attacking Beloved, the acclaimed Toni Morrison novel. Ignoring that Beloved can be a powerful tool for students to confront difficult truths around racism, Youngkin instead sought to allow some to censor the book in our classrooms. More recently, the governor has championed Senate Bill 656, which would allow parents to opt students out of classroom instruction deemed “sexually explicit.” SB 656 includes “homosexuality” in its definition of sexually explicit and mandates an onerousapproval process for any instruction that meets this standards, chilling the already limited queer representation in our classroom. After all, why would teachers, already overworked, go through the process of getting approval for texts that include LGBTQIA+ people when they can simply opt for content without us?

More recently, Youngkin’s Department of Education released draft changes to Virginia’s model transgender policies. The original guidelines required school districts to implement evidence-based protections for queer students, including prohibitions against the forced disclosure of a student’s LGBTQIA+ identity and upholding the right of queer students to be addressed by their correct pronouns and name. 

As students, we experienced the power of the original guidelines. The fear of outing, for example, hangs over the head of every queer student from an unsupportive household. We once worked with a student who was denied water after their parents found out they were gay, and we’ve worked with other students whose parents have threatened them with conversion therapy. The original affirming guidelines, while not perfect, removed some of this fear.

WIthout the constant worry that teachers would out our friends to hostile parents, we were finally able to be ourselves. We saw our transgender classmates finally walk through the halls without having to justify their existence at every moment. We saw our friends sit up taller in class, knowing that their identities were protected.

But the revised guidelines revoke that progress. With forced outing provisions, a refusal to acknowledge a student’s transition without both parental consent and legal documentation, and a bathroom ban, the new draft revisions to the model transgender policies erase our community’s existence. They effectively take away the one place where we could be ourselves and will only heighten abuse, harassment, depression, and suicide. 

The draft guidelines have already seen massive opposition. We helped organize walkouts of more than 12,000 students at schools across Virginia, and well over 50,000 comments, most opposed, have been left on the DOE’s public comments website. But Glenn Youngkin seems to be ignoring Virginian voices, instead using these policies as a change to address national conservative audiences as he gears up for a potential 2024 presidential run.

Lost in all the governor’s politicking is the real harm done to students. We have had to talk friends out of taking their lives, and we rarely meet a queer student who isn’t struggling with their mental health. Our experiences aren’t unique: Research consistently suggests that the majority of LGBTQIA+ students are vulnerable to depression and suicide. Yet our governor is hell-bent on removing the solace and affirmation found in inclusive books, classroom instruction, and school regulations for his own political future, rather than address the real crises in our schools.

Our schools are in crisis. We hope our leaders stop focusing so much on polling boosts and fundraising hauls and instead, address the depression, abuse, and harassment that ravages our schools.

Natasha Sanghvi, Ranger Balleisen, Casey Calabia, Juno Teller, and Rivka Vizcardo-Lichter are students in Virginia who helped organize a massive school walkout this month in protest of Youngkin’s reversal of protections for trans students in schools.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.