December 5, 2022

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One of the school board candidates in this Northern Virginia suburb is fresh out of college, an out-and-proud 22-year-old who got involved in local politics while speaking up for gay rights as a high school student.

The second is a parents rights activist who wants to ban some books depicting same-sex content and serves on the board of a group that has tweeted about “LGBTQ+ sickos and lunatics.”

And the incumbent they want to unseat — a 27-year-old who was appointed to the position and unexpectedly thrust into one of the nation’s fiercest battlegrounds over pronouns, bathrooms and sexuality in schools — is also gay but says it has no real effect on his campaign.

Welcome to the race for a school board representing Loudoun County’s Broad Run District, a swath of retirement homes and data centers that was already at the center of the nation’s culture wars. Animated by last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, where Republicans seized on a call for parental rights, this suburb has segued into a new battle around LGBTQ identity and politics in America.

Loudoun school board race partisan, tense and a test of GOP appeal

It points to a trend not just in Loudoun County: As LGBTQ representation in political contests at all levels across the country has soared, the political tides have turned, too, giving center stage to conservative efforts to erode LGBTQ representation in public schools.

“These factors are the two sides of the same coin: the record number of LGBTQ candidates, and on the other hand, the record number of anti-LGBTQ and specifically anti-trans views,” said Gabriele Magni, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University. “We are seeing an increasingly polarized environment on these issues.”

In eight conservative state legislatures, lawmakers have recently voted to let parents pull their children out of school lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation. On Long Island, voters will choose between two openly gay candidates to represent them in Congress — a first in U.S. history.

The Ohio man whose lawsuit legalized same-sex marriage is running a serious statehouse bid as a Democrat, while his counterparts in Washington have all but failed to muster the Republican votes needed to cement that right into law.

LGBTQ bill on child abuse creates uproar in Virginia and beyond

In the age of Pete Buttigieg, banned books and Caitlyn Jenner, these forces have collided in a place where not long ago it would have been unthinkable to see one gay candidate, let alone two.

The incumbent in Broad Run, Andrew Hoyler, has drawn flak from all sides about voting to ban — or not to ban — books with LGBTQ characters from libraries.

Nick Gothard, who has been endorsed by Democrats, has accused his opponents of sending out anonymous text messages claiming that he was going to bring drag shows into schools, a claim they’ve denied.

And the group Parents Against Critical Theory (PACT) — which is in part led by Tiffany Polifko, the Republican-endorsed candidate — tweeted a photo of Gothard with the message: “it’s officially unicorn season, and there is no bag limit.”

A rise in LGBTQ candidates

Gothard, now a nonprofit program manager, was a high school junior — and barely a few months out of the closet — when he first decided to speak during a public comment period before the Loudoun County School Board, urging the adoption of nondiscrimination policies that would affirm protections for LGBTQ students and employees.

At the time, the handful of openly LGBTQ-elected officials in Virginia was concentrated in historically Democratic districts inside or immediately next to the Beltway. They were nonexistent in redder or even purple areas like Loudoun, said Magni, the LMU political scientist.

“Prejudice, homophobia and transphobia was very high,” he said, and even voters who might have otherwise supported openly gay candidates raised concerns about “electability.”

But over the course of Gothard’s short but active political career — joining the board of a local LGBTQ group, Equality Loudoun, getting involved with the Loudoun Democratic Committee and then serving as its executive director, working on the county’s advisory board on mental health — that started to change.

In a Prince William County district down the road from Loudoun, Del. Danica Roem (D) became the first openly trans state lawmaker in the country in 2017, unseating a 13-term lawmaker who had called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”

Two years later, Democrats such as Chris Pappas and Sharice Davids managed to win competitive races for U.S. Congress in eastern New Hampshire and the Kansas City suburbs, respectively.

Similar wins trickled down to the nation’s school boards, too. The Victory Institute, which recruits and trains LGBTQ candidates, found in an October report that the number of openly LGBTQ officials on these local bodies has more than doubled since 2018, climbing from 34 to 82.

More than half of all those school board members identified as cisgender gay men — including Hoyler, who first ran for the board and lost in 2019.

All the while, social conservatives appeared to sharpen their focus on gender and sexuality in schools, waging legal and social battles that — to some — challenge whether LGBTQ people should be granted any visibility at all in the classroom.

A push against ‘sexualized politics’

One ad for Polifko, the mother of two Loudoun County Public Schools students, features her sitting in her kitchen, as video clips of children riding school buses roll on tape.

“Wouldn’t you agree if a well-rounded education is replaced by special-interest agendas pushing sexualized and racially biased politics would contribute to a negative outcome?” she asks in the video. “I believe our children deserve to learn in an environment free of identity politics.”

Polifko, a behavioral analyst who works with children with autism, said she jumped into the political fray of her home county last year, just as it became center stage in the education culture wars.

It started, she said, with a seventh-grade English class exercise featuring a TED Talk that instructed her son to confront his privilege “and recognize himself as an oppressor.”

It lit a fire in her, she said. So she started tuning into school board meetings and quickly became a mainstay on a podcast hosted by Stephen K. Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump, as groups like PACT — where she serves as a vice president — began railing against what they considered inappropriate material in the classroom.

Outcries like hers were happening all across the country. Legal groups — some with ties to other conservative voices in Loudoun — crafted bans on transgender athletes in public school sports teams. Attempts to ban books from school libraries, many of them by or about LGBTQ people, reached historic highs.

In Virginia, where Republicans regained control of state government on a platform of parental rights, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) reversed the guidance of his Democratic predecessor and put forth a “model policy” that said schools should be required to inform parents if their children decide to use pronouns or a name different from the one they use at home.

GOP lawmakers push historic wave of bills targeting rights of LGBTQ teens, children and their families

Polifko said she decided to run because the incumbent, Hoyler — whom she praised as a “nice young man” — had failed to take enough of a hard-line stance on many of these issues. She pointed, for instance, to his vote to keep in school libraries the book “Lawn Boy,” a coming-of-age novel that features LGBTQ themes, including an adult character recalling a same-sex encounter he had as a child that critics have described as pedophilia.

“We need somebody who’s going to get in there and be more assertive about that type of material,” she said, “because most parents don’t think that it’s appropriate to have that type of book in our schools.”

‘I don’t really think it matters’

A self-avowed nonpartisan independent, Hoyler joined the board just as it was handling a nonstop series of controversies: Sexual assaults in a school bathroom. Arguments over critical race theory. Lawsuits over pronouns.

After Broad Run member Leslee King unexpectedly died in August 2021, her colleagues appointed the 27-year-old airline pilot — who had unsuccessfully run against her two years earlier — to fill the rest of her term.

Hoyler, the son and brother of LCPS teachers and an occasional substitute himself, has netted one of the board’s most heterodox records since. He has deferred to the courts on Youngkin’s model policies but voted against an LGBTQ history month proclamation. He voted to ban “Gender Queer,” another controversial book, but to keep “Lawn Boy” in school libraries.

For him, being gay is incidental to his work on the board. “I don’t make my vote by saying, ‘Well, as a gay man, I think we need to do this,’ or introduce myself in that way, because, quite frankly, I don’t really think it matters,” he said.

The Victory Fund, a sister organization of the Victory Institute, endorsed Gothard in the race — a rarity for a group that often stays out of the fray in the rare instances when two LGBTQ candidates run against each other.

But Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at the Victory Fund, said identity wasn’t enough in a candidate — action was also needed.

“We see an increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and targeting of our community, and we need to have people, while capably serving their constituency, fight to make sure that our rights don’t get further diminished,” Meloy said.

Nationally, plenty of other LGBTQ candidates said they have been running directly in response to an uptick in hate. That’s not quite the case for Gothard or Hoyler, who both pointed to far wonkier issues — school funding, mental health, learning loss — as their main priorities.

Gothard said his conversations with voters have focused more on teacher pay than on controversies over books and bathrooms. But unlike Hoyler, he has not been quiet about citing his own experiences.

A record number of trans and nonbinary people are running for office

Asked about Youngkin’s model policies during a WJLA debate among the three candidates, he said: “I know firsthand how life-changing it can be for students to have their identity affirmed.”

Still, regardless of how this turns out, some openly gay elected officials said it was notable for there to be two gay candidates in a Loudoun County race.

“Oh really? Wow,” Virginia state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said when told about the majority-gay race. “It’s a sign of progress that they are running for office and being mainstream candidates, regardless of their orientation.”

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