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Harrisonburg students walk out in support of trans youth

Randi B. Hagi
Students marched around Harrisonburg High School on Tuesday afternoon in support of their trans peers, and in protest of a lawsuit filed against the school board and superintendent.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said the walkout happened on Monday. It has been corrected.

Students at Harrisonburg High School walked out of classes Tuesday afternoon to support trans students and to oppose an organization that's suing the school district over its policies concerning those students. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sounds of students talking]

Hundreds of students spilled out of the cafeteria doors in an excited throng on Tuesday, some bearing hand-made signs with statements such as, "protect trans youth," "human rights are not political," and "eres amado." They marched around the school building, chanting –

STUDENTS: Protect trans students! Protect trans students!

Claire Sprague and Zoe King are members of the Gay Straight Alliance, which organized the walkout.

Randi B. Hagi
Zoe King, left, and Claire Sprague were among the Gay Straight Alliance club members who organized the walkout.

CLAIRE SPRAGUE: I personally am not trans. I don't want to speak for our trans students. But we just wanted to let them know that their voices are heard and they're supported and that they have a community that loves and respects them and wants what's best for them.

ZOE KING: And just to make sure that the power that we have didn't go unused, because we have this big movement, power that, you know, there's so many people here that will come out and support, as you've seen.

They had thought maybe 20 or 30 people would show up. The turnout appeared closer to 400 or 500.

KING: I am amazed, and I'm sure you are, too.

SPRAGUE: We underestimated the efficacy of flier campaigns! [laughs]

Trans kids in Virginia have found themselves at the center of multiple struggles.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has released new model policies that change how public schools treat trans students, including requiring parents' written approval for a student to change their name or pronoun at school. As The Washington Post reported last week, Youngkin's edict has been delayed in taking effect by at least 30 days, while the Virginia Department of Education reviews feedback submitted during a public comment period.

In Harrisonburg, the school board and superintendent are being sued over policies regarding names and pronouns. The religious legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom is representing a group of Harrisonburg parents and teachers that argue the policies infringe on parents' rights.

Randi B. Hagi
The students gathered in a courtyard outside the cafeteria.

As The Harrisonburg Citizen reported, Superintendent Michael Richards explained to the organization in a letter that any teacher who has been asked to use a different name or pronoun for a student consults with a school counselor, who then works with the student to assemble a supportive team of staff, family, and other school partners, "as needed on a case-by-case basis."

Based on the rhetoric on their website, The Alliance Defending Freedom does not recognize trans identities as legitimate.

Harrisonburg School Board members Andy Kohen and Kristen Loflin were in attendance at the rally, but said they weren't at liberty to comment on the lawsuit. They were there for –

ANDY KOHEN: Solidarity with both the students and the movement – the morality of it. … Not to mention that I have an LGBT daughter. It's personal as well as political, if you will.

KRISTEN LOFLIN: … to support our students and to support the cause. One of my kids is out here peacefully protesting – I'm so proud of her. And I'm proud of all of these classmates.

Ninth-grader Dustin Shiganakov, who is trans, was brimming with excitement at seeing so much support from their classmates.

Randi B. Hagi
Dustin Shiganakov, center, addresses the crowd.

DUSTIN SHIGANAKOV: This is just to get our voices out, saying, "hey, trans people are also people." Just because we're trans does not mean that we should be silenced out. And what Alliance for Defending Freedom is doing is trying to silence out all the trans youth in this community. But it's also part of – Glenn Youngkin, when he released his new policy, you know, it was another way of just hurting and silencing the trans voices out there.

I asked if they had any suggestions for how listeners can support trans youth.

SHIGANAKOV: Listen to your child…. Ask them, "what are your preferred pronouns? What is your preferred name?" And if your rest of the family is transphobic, but you want to be supportive, don't let the whole family know. Just keep it to yourself. That's one of the things that my Dad has done, and a lot of people have done in my family, and I love them for that. Another thing I would suggest is just to make sure, if they are struggling in school, like they're being bullied – listen to them.

The Rockingham Circuit Court held a hearing in the lawsuit this afternoon. At this point, the judge could either dismiss the case, as the school district's attorneys have requested in a demurrer, or allow it to proceed to trial. The judge will also need to rule on an injunction requested by the Alliance for Defending Freedom, which would temporarily halt the practice of the district's policies regarding student names and pronouns.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.