The Virginia Department of Education on Aug. 3 closed its window for public input on model policies governing instructional materials deemed to have sexually explicit content.
Under the proposed Model Policies Concerning Instructional Materials with Sexually Explicit Content, parents of public school students would be notified of books or instructional materials with “sexually explicit” content.
Several groups including, Equality Loudoun, asked people to take action to protect books with LGBTQ+ subject matter within the county’s school libraries before the deadline.
The controversy surrounds Senate Bill 656, which was signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on April 6.
The law requires the VDOE to develop model polices for ensuring parental notification of any instructional material that include sexually explicit content. Additionally, the model polices are required to address how to directly identify specific instructional material and sexually explicit subjects and allow the parents to review that material and get alternative non-explicit material when requested. The law requires the development of model polices by July 31, and that local school boards adopt the polices no later than Jan. 1, 2023.
Rivka Vizcardo-Lichter, 15, co-president of Pride Liberation, a Northern Virginia based student led nonprofit that woks to protect the rights of queer students, said the core of the law is a good idea. “Nobody wants sexually explicit content in schools,” she said. But what she does take issue with is a reference within the law that cites “sexual content” to include “homosexuality.”
“The issue is under that context it defines queer people just existing as sexually explicit content,” she said.
She said the way that content is defined in the law has irreparable effects on LGBTQ+ students in Virginia.
Vizcardo-Lichter is referring to a state code provision that defines sexually explicit content to include drawings, pictures, photographs, films, bestiality, sexual conduct, sadomasochistic abuse and lewd nudity among other things. A subsection lists homosexuality as part of the definition of sexual conduct.
She said it would make all references to LGBTQ+ people and issues—including Supreme Court cases, historical events, and discussions about LGBTQ+ authors—sexually explicit.
“On the surface it seems like a harmless run of the mill bill, but when you dig deeper you see Virginia code defines sexual content as homosexuality. It’s a very intentionally vague bill meant to hide more dangerous intentions. It means anything involving same sex relationships are impacted by the guidelines depending on how the guidelines are formed,” Vizcardo-Lichter said, essentially erasing LGBTQ+ representation in the school curricula.
On Aug. 3, Pride Liberation released a letter with 600+ student signatures calling for the Virginia Department of Education to clarify regulations that could be interpreted to define queer people as “sexually explicit.”
“For me, the most glaring obvious part is that heterosexual isn’t included. It’s the rhetoric that anything other than heterosexual is inherently sexual. It’s rhetoric that the queer community have been fighting against for years,” she said. “The feeling is indescribable. I’m shocked and hurt that my existence and some of my friend’s existence is deemed sexually explicit content. That it’s inherently sexual just to exist.”
The letter asks the VDOE to explicitly state that instruction about LGBTQ+ people is not inherently sexual, as it develops guidelines around the law.
In an email, Equality Loudoun said it does not oppose parental involvement or the notification of truly sexually explicit material, but it does strongly oppose the policy because of the definition of “sexual content” includes homosexuality.
Equality Loudoun said the law essentially labels LGBTQ+ books in the same category as pornography.
“The way this term is defined is just wrong. You might think it’s not a big deal for a term to be defined incorrectly. But the effect of that is very damaging to queer students and damaging to all students to be deprived of an education that does not include queer students. And its damaging for queer students to get an education where they are not represented,” Vizcardo-Lichter said.
Equality Loudoun argues that age-appropriate LGBTQ+ books are helpful to queer children in finding context, purpose and humanity.
Ian Prior, with Fight for Schools, a political action committee opposing progressive policies in Loudoun County said, “We applaud the Youngkin Administration for listening to parents and encouraging more parental involvement and consent with what is being taught in the schools that parents pay for with their taxes. We hope that Loudoun County Public Schools will be just as diligent in complying with model guidelines from this Department of Education as they were under the previous administration.”
Jim Chapman, the regulatory and legal Coordinator for the Office of Board Relations for the Virginia Department of Education responded to Pride Liberation’s letter in an email saying they appreciated their comments, and they will be reviewed by VDOE staff and considered along with other comments shared.