Unlike county employees, Loudoun County Public Schools staff and faculty can be fired for their sexuality or gender identity. Similarly, students in those classes are not specifically protected by LCPS non-discrimination and harassment policies.
The Loudoun County School Board could have changed this in January, but after weeks of testimony and research, the board decided 4-5 not to adopt LGBTQ-specific protections for LCPS staff and faculty, or to extend Title IX protections to LGBTQ students on the basis that sexual orientation and gender identity are related to sex. In the meantime, activists say these populations have remained vulnerable.
For the past several months, local LGBT community members and allies have gotten together to relaunch Equality Loudoun, a pro-LGBTQ advocacy group, and high on the list of agenda items are protective policies for the school system.
Charlotte McConnell, one of many activists driving the Equality Loudoun relaunch, said four of the five recent youth suicides in Loudoun were by LGBTQ-identifying youth.
“It is a delicate subject but we really need to have better support for the LGBT community in Loudoun County, especially our transgender community, because even some well-educated people in this county had a really hard time finding resources to help their transgender children,” McConnell said.
According to national statistics, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (trans) youth are more likely to be bullied and suffer from anxiety and depression. One in five trans people under the age of 18 are likely to attempt suicide. Scientific organizations such as American Association of Pediatrics and Center for Disease Control say that creating these policies creates a safe and accepting environment that is beneficial to LGBTQ youth.
“My frustration is the school board has heard facts and figures about how much more likely transgender people are to commit suicide and they’ve been told that students are afraid in Loudoun County, employees are afraid in Loudoun County to really show who they are, and they decided not to do anything about it,” McConnell said. “And the frustrating thing about it is that we don’t have any hard facts or figures about Loudoun County because that information isn’t collected.”
Recent Loudoun Valley High School graduate Samuel Hamblin said he saw the bullying first hand. Hamblin is trans and is friends with other LGBTQ-identifying students. He said heckling and the use of slurs by other students was not uncommon. Although there were supportive teachers in the school, many were not informed on LGBTQ issues and didn’t know how to handle situations. Some even refused to help students.
Hamblin’s experience with his guidance counselor stands out. When Hamblin went to his guidance counselor for advice on how to tell his teachers to use his chosen name and pronouns, his guidance counselor did not want to help.
“It was very clear he did not want to help me. He made it clear by constantly repeating ‘I believe in the bible.’ He probably said that three times and it made me really uncomfortable,” Hamblin said. “I didn’t go see another counselor until a couple months into my junior year. It really kind of makes me wish that I could have known I could have seen a different counselor. It was not made obvious to me (that you could do that).”
Hamblin said while he was in school, he was lucky to have a great support system from friends and the Gay-Straight Alliance and have relative acceptance at home. However, not everyone is this lucky and having accepting policies and proper training for guidance counselors and teachers would go a long way to making students feel safer.
“The students need to feel safe in order to learn and achieve,” McConnell said. “The school board maybe gave up and walked away, but we’re trying hard to influence them and make them rethink, and try and figure out a way we can support these students because it is kind of a difficult balance when we’re adults who are trying to help students because if their parents aren’t accepting, that’s a problem and how can we help when maybe their parents don’t want to help their children.”
Loudoun resident Susan Hayden said she feels the county is a more traditionally-minded place. When her daughter came out as trans and began living as her true self the summer before her senior year at Potomac Falls High School, there were many new things to her daughter and to the school.
“It’s not like you can start living as your true self and everything is fine,” Hayden said.
Her daughter had some supportive friends and teachers but for awhile, but overall, the school year was a difficult one, Hayden said. One instance that stands out to Hayden is the day her daughter went to get her senior portrait taken. The photographer argued against Hayden’s daughter wearing the drape that female students traditionally wear in the portraits. Hayden said the photographer loudly argued with them in front of the full auditorium.
She believes by having teachers and staff properly informed on LGBTQ issues, the school system will be stronger and all students will feel safer.
“They’re not protected right now but they are targeted,” Hayden said. “I’m concerned that there are some people not willing to consider human rights issues with LGBT people because they think it’s a partisan issue. It’s about taking care of children.”
Ayala Sherbow is also the mother of a transgender daughter and member of Equality Loudoun. A lifelong activist, Sherbow has always considered herself an ally to the LGBTQ community, but it was when her daughter came out to her as trans that she became more involved with that activism.
Like Hayden’s daughter, Sherbow’s daughter also experienced difficulties navigating the public school system as an out-trans student. The lack of protective policies add to a climate of fear for LGBTQ youth, Sherbow said.
“My daughter knows people at our local high schools out in Purcellville who are non-binary, so there are more of them than anyone thinks and as long as it’s not safe for them, we’re never going to know how many of them there are,” Sherbow said. “By not being willing to assert that you are safe here too, we contribute to the climate in which they suffer.”
Sherbow is also an advocate for creating census data of LGBTQ people. McConnell said Equality Loudoun is working on creating a survey to attempt to document how many LGBTQ people live in the county. The national 2020 census was set to count sexuality and gender identity in its data collection. However, the Trump administration reversed that decision, Sherbow said.
“I think it was going to be included for the first time and it was really important because we can’t honor, acknowledge, respect, protect people that we don’t think exist, and if people are invisible then they can’t be protected, they can’t be advocated for,” Sherbow said. “This directly connects to the school board issue because if LGBTQ staff and teachers and faculty aren’t protected, don’t have basic employment protections, and they can be fired for coming out and expressing their authentic selves, then they are invisible. And if they are invisible, our children are invisible because it’s not safe.”
Sherbow believes the fundamental first step LCPS needs to take is to provide protections for LGBTQ faculty and staff so that no one can be fired for something as simple as displaying a picture of a same-sex spouse on their desk
“You know, 60, 70 years ago, I could have been fired for being Jewish, somebody could have been fired for being Black. When we created employment discrimination law to make that illegal, that wasn’t creating special rights. That was overtly extending the rights that every American is entitled to, to classes of people who had been historically targeted, and now it’s time to do the same for LGBTQ people,” Sherbow said.
Sherbow said this fight for equal rights is part of what inspired her to help re-launch Equality Loudoun.
Originally founded by David Weintraub, the all volunteer nonprofit had been active during the marriage equality movement and then it petered out a bit, Sherbow said. When she and McConnell connected and began working with other activists and Equality Virginia, it made sense to them to relaunch something that had already existed. Equality Loudoun now hast steering committee of about 12 people representing everything on the LGBTQ spectrum and allies.
Among the groups goals is increasing LGBTQ visibility in the county.
“We want LGBTQ people to be able to find each other and know what services, businesses are welcome. We want our elected representatives to know that LGBTQ people and their allies are a real constituency in Loudoun County. We want LGBTQ and allies to be a vibrant, thriving, welcome part of Loudoun,” Sherbow said.
The group has taken part in educational forums and local celebrations like the Leesburg Fourth of July parade. While the group has been involved in public events, Sherbow, Hayden and McConnell said a committee continues to work on how to best address the school board and advocate for LGBTQ protections.
“LGBT rights are not a partisan issue and it would benefit everyone to have an accepting community,” Hayden said. “At the center are children who deserve to have a safe school experience.”