Firing Virginia teacher who misgendered student was the right call

Editor’s note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.

A Virginia high school teacher is claiming he was fired for not using a student’s preferred gender pronouns. But that’s not entirely correct.

Rather, West Point High School French teacher Peter Vlaming was technically fired for insubordination, after he did not comply with his supervisor’s multiple requests to call his student by the appropriate gender pronouns.

And now he’s suing, with the help of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. The ADF is a right-wing group with extreme views on gay and trans issues, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized as “one of the most influential groups informing the [Trump] administration’s attack on LGBT rights.”

The teacher wasn’t fired simply because of a pronoun, but rather because he was behaving in violation of school policy, judicial precedent and the state’s Department of Education code of ethics.

As a public school teacher, Vlaming was, of course, a government employee.

You may believe that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to get married, but if you’re a government employee processing that couple’s taxes, you must still acknowledge that they are married. You may not believe that a woman should have a child out of wedlock, but as a government employee, you must still cut her social services disbursement check if she qualifies for it.

The lawsuit ADF filed on behalf of Vlaming says that adhering to his supervisor’s orders to refer to the student using their preferred gender pronouns “violates his conscience.”

As a country that separates church and state, we cannot simply allow public employees, whose salaries are paid by our taxes, to impose their personal religious beliefs within public institutions meant to serve everyone. That separation has been reinforced consistently in our courts, including in some high-profile cases like that of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that marriage equality was the law of the land.

What’s more, there’s a judicial precedent that has leaned on Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools, to protect transgender students. The Trump administration, though, has issued guidance to undo the Obama administration’s guidance affirming that Title IX also protects students from discrimination based on their gender identity. A consolidation of several cases of people who say they were fired because they are LGBTQ will be heard before the Supreme Court this week. The claim under examination — one that has held up in lower courts — is specific to whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 recognizes LGBTQ people under “sex” as a protected class.

Virginia does not have statewide legal protections for its LGBTQ residents; a bill that would prohibit discrimination in housing and government employment never even came to a vote because it never got a full committee hearing in the state legislature this past session, despite bipartisan support.

That’s too bad because such a law might have reminded Vlaming that misgendering a transgender child is wrong. It goes against the very ethos of what being a teacher means: to provide a nurturing space where students can learn, regardless of who they are. By refusing to acknowledge this student’s identity, Vlaming created a hostile learning environment.

And by suing, he is threatening to create many more toxic classrooms.

By supporting Vlaming’s suit, the ADF Center for Academic Freedom is taking what could be an important moment of introspection for this teacher, and using it instead to advance the group’s well-established agenda of working to strip LGBTQ people of our rights.

Vlaming’s lawyers claim that the teacher’s “conscience” was under threat from the requirement that he not misgender his students, and that the school was infringing on Vlaming’s freedom of speech and religion. But it doesn’t take more than a tiny bit of prodding to see through that flimsy argument.

It’s true that the student in question previously identified as female. But what definitive proof did Vlaming have to deny the student’s male identity? What determines someone’s sex or gender? Their external genitals? Surely he didn’t see those, or he’d have a whole host of other wrongdoing to answer to.

Even then, how can one presume to know a student’s identity based on genitals or past identification, when there are myriad other factors that contribute to one’s sex and gender — internal sex organs, hormones, chromosomes, brainwaves, internal sense of self?

If we took a moment to really think, we’d realize that just as we accept others’ right to be called by the name they prefer, it does us no harm to also refer to them in their preferred gender.

Virginia isn’t a stranger to these situations. The state has spent four years hearing one of the most visible transgender cases in history, in a legal battle over whether then-high school student Gavin Grimm had the right to use the school bathroom that comported with his gender identity.

In 2017, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which sent the case back to a lower court. Just this August, a federal judge in Virginia handed down a decision in favor of Grimm — and in favor of all transgender and gender non-conforming students everywhere.

“These acknowledgments are made in the hopes of making a positive difference to Mr. Grimm and to the everyday lives of our children who rely upon us to protect them compassionately and in ways that more perfectly respect the dignity of every person,” Judge Arenda Wright Allen said in handing down her decision. Judge Allen’s language demonstrates the empathy that we desperately need more of.

Transgender kids face enormous hurdles in a society that often doesn’t understand or accept them. They are more likely to be rejected at home, bullied by peers at school and online, denied necessary medical care and disadvantaged in nearly every other facet of life. Our teachers shouldn’t be another line item on the list of reasons our transgender kids are less likely to get ahead in life. Rather, teachers should offer students refuge and understanding.

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