A Virginia physical education teacher spoke out recently against a policy that would require school staff to affirm the gender identity of transgender and nonbinary students — and following his speech, he was placed on administrative leave.
Now the teacher is suing the district.
“I am speaking out of love for those who are suffering from gender dysphoria,” the Leesburg Elementary School teacher, Byron "Tanner" Cross, said at a recorded Loudoun County school board meeting on May 25, igniting the controversy. “I’m a teacher but I serve God first and I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa because it’s against my religion. It’s lying to a child, it’s abuse to a child, and it’s sinning against our God.”
Two days later, according to a letter from the school district that was publicly shared by Cross’s attorney at the conservative Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Cross was informed in writing that he’d been put on leave, and is being investigated for “allegations that you engaged in conduct that has had a disruptive impact on the operations of Leesburg Elementary School.”
When reached for comment via email by Yahoo Life, Wayde Bayard, Loudoun County Public Schools public information officer, would say only, “Mr. Cross was placed on administrative leave, with pay, on Thursday, May 30. Commenting on his leave any further would violate confidentiality laws. That is the only statement that I can offer. Loudoun County Public Schools does not comment on pending litigation.”
According to the ADF and Fox News, Cross, in his speech, had referred to proposed school policies, one of which would compel Loudoun staff to “allow gender-expansive or transgender students to use their chosen name and gender pronouns that reflect their gender identity without any substantiating evidence, regardless of the name and gender recorded in the student’s permanent educational record.”
On Tuesday, the ADF, which did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment, announced the lawsuit filed against the school district on behalf of Cross. Senior counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, addressed the situation through a statement on the organization’s website. “Public schools have no business compelling teachers to express ideological beliefs that they don’t hold, nor do they have the right to suspend someone simply for respectfully providing their opinion at a public meeting,” he said. “The school district favors a certain set of beliefs on a hotly contested issue, and it wants to force Tanner to cry uncle and endorse them as well. That’s neither legal nor constitutional, and neither was the school’s move to place Tanner on leave.”
The Virginia controversy comes at a particularly fraught time regarding transgender rights and clashing beliefs over the ever-changing, expansive landscape of what gender means, as 2021 set a record as the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history, according to the Human Rights Campaign, with 17 bills targeting trans youth’s access to gender-affirming medical care, trans students’s ability to participate in school athletics and other aspects of public life enacted thus far. Some of the bills would define providing gender-affirming medical care as a form of child abuse, language that was echoed in Cross’s speech before the school board.
Keeping up with expanding ideas of gender has been particularly salient among young people, including at schools, as exemplified recently by a transgender high school student in Georgia who was told by administrators that his chosen name would not be called at graduation — leading to fierce public support of the student through a Change.org petition signed by more than 22,000. Eventually, the school relented and the graduate, Soren Tucker, was called to receive his diploma by name.
And Cross is not the first K-12 teacher to receive scrutiny for refusing to respect the pronouns of transgender students: In 2019, a math teacher in Jacksonville, Fla., faced reprimands from his principal for a similar situation, while, that same year, a French teacher at West Point High School in West Point, Va., was fired for refusing to refer to a transgender student as “he,” citing religious beliefs. Like Cross, that teacher, Peter Vlaming, sued his district in a case that’s still pending.
So how are school districts grappling with these issues in general? Many, like Loudoun County, have created trans-supportive policies based on longstanding best practices, according to Asaf Orr, senior staff attorney and Transgender Youth Project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which has provided counsel for similar cases — including one it is currently appealing, in which a three-judge panel concluded it was an Ohio college professor’s first amendment right to misgender a student.
“Organizations of educators and administrators have really come together behind a set of best practices for working with transgender students — and the best practice, which has been the case for about a decade, is to treat transgender students consistently with their identity,” Orr tells Yahoo Life, referring to the positions of groups including the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Education Association. “Certainly, some schools have done that without formal policies, while some adopted them five or even 10 years ago, and some are adopting them now.” In Virginia, he notes, the state approved legislation requiring the department of education to put in place such best practices — currently being challenged by two conservative groups — which is what may have been playing out in Cross’ case (Orr is not familiar with the specifics in Loudoun County).
And in many cases, those best practices are being adopted into law, Orr says, referring to cases including one from 2016 in which they represented an Ohio middle school student who was being barred from the girls’ restroom and who was consistently deadnamed, or called by the name she went by prior to her transition. The judge in that case ordered, along with girls’ bathroom access, that her district “have her referred to by her correct name and pronouns,” Orr says.
Regarding the case of the college professor that’s now being appealed, Orr calls the Sixth Circuit’s opinion “breathtaking” in that it classifies misgendering a student as free speech — something Orr says typically refers to “talking about a matter of public concern.” But “using a person’s pronouns is not a matter of public concern… You’re not conveying any idea about feelings about pronouns, you’re saying, ‘I’m calling on you, I want you to answer that question.’ You’re referring to another student, and not making any kind of comment,” he says. In the legal case, the professor was “staking his position in the broader public debate about gender identity and [that] therefore it could possibly be covered under the first amendment, and our position is that it’s not,” which is now being considered in the appeal. Cross's case, meanwhile, is just beginning.
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