On Thursday, a teacher at a public school in Virginia was fired after the school board voted unanimously that his refusal to call a transgender student by their preferred pronouns was discriminatory and a form of harassment. The teacher, Peter Vlaming, had been told by the school administration to use the student’s preferred pronouns several times, but he refused due to his religious beliefs. He had taught at the school for seven years.
There is never any justification for denying a person — a child, of all people — their identity, and, in turn, their humanity. The fact that Vlaming was willing to lose his job, a job he held for nearly a decade, after being given several opportunities to remedy the situation, suggests a sick sense of pride. All he had to do was call the student by their preferred pronouns — a three- or four-letter word. It would have been the most basic show of respect that would have made the student feel comfortable in the classroom, and he still could not do it.
Did Vlaming consider how difficult adolescence is for young people in general, much less young transgender people? Besides the personal and emotional hell a transgender child may be going through internally, they have to go out into a world that largely still does not accept the person they choose to be. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 75 percent of transgender students “feel unsafe at school.”
Transgender students also have lower GPAs and lower attendance rates than their non-transgender peers, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Did Vlaming ever stop and think about the fact that, by refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns, he was putting them at greater risk for all of these things? Did he ever consider that he could make the student’s life a little easier, a little brighter and set a model for acceptance of all people simply by using the pronouns the student identifies with?
It is clear that Vlaming never considered any of these things. He acted selfishly in accord with what he claims to be his “religious beliefs.” He created a hostile, even more stressful environment in, of all places, a school — where a student should be able to receive their education without fear. It is therefore entirely justifiable that he was fired by unanimous decision, especially after he was warned repeatedly of the consequences he would suffer if he didn’t change his behavior.
The fact that the school board did not doubt for a second the negative effects this type of treatment had on the student, and that the vote was unanimous, is an encouraging sign in a country currently led by a president who wants to strip trans people of their rights. Though the board may have been acting in its own interests to ensure it would not face a lawsuit, I would hope that the members acted more out of concern for the student who could not even go to school without being harassed by their teacher.
This incident occurred just a week after a transgender student was forcibly removed from a bathroom at Osseo Senior High School in Minnesota. The school’s staff opened the bathroom stall while the student was using the toilet and forced her to leave — an extreme violation of privacy. The school’s principal did not directly address their reasons for doing so, citing “data privacy reasons” in an announcement on the school’s website.
The vastly different reactions to both of these situations illustrates how much more work needs to be done to ensure that young transgender people feel safe at school. It also shows us that we have a long way to go to ensure inclusivity in our society if people cannot even show basic respect and call someone by their preferred pronouns.
The incident in Virginia that resulted in the firing of Vlaming should serve as an example of how all schools should respond to any discrimination toward their transgender students — that is, with a zero tolerance policy for any form of intolerance toward that student’s gender identity.
Both of these situations also serve as a reminder to stand in solidarity with transgender people, especially now, when their very identity and rights are being discriminated against and challenged in even the smallest of ways. Simple actions, like using someone’s preferred pronouns, can be extremely meaningful and can help to make our society more inclusive.