When it comes to defending our democracy, the time is now to be fearless – to go big, to be bold, to fight like hell. The ACLU-VA was made for times like this. Check out our 2022 annual report, Fearlessly Defending Democracy, and join the fight!
Table of Content
A Look Back:
- Fearlessly Fighting for Trans Justice
- Fearlessly Defending People. Not Prisons.
- Fearlessly Protecting Voting Rights
A Look Forward:
- Fearlessly Protecting Trans and Nonbinary Kids
- Fearlessly Defending Children's Right to Think
- Fearlessly Protecting Abortion Access
- Fearlessly Supporting Second Chances
- Courtney Henson
- Virginia Reproductive Equity Alliance (VREA)
- Virginia Equity in Education Coalition (VEEC)
A Look Back
When the 2021-22 school year began, school boards across Virginia were required by law to adopt model policies consistent with, or more comprehensive than, those developed by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to protect transgender students from discrimination at school. Alarmingly, some of Virginia’s school boards refused to adopt the policies. Some even went further and pursued alternative policies that were outright harmful to transgender and nonbinary students.
The Hanover County School Board (HCSB), for example, not only refused to adopt the VDOE’s model policies, it engaged Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an extremist organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to develop equity policies, including a trans bathroom policy, for its school system. We filed a lawsuit against the school board for its failure to adopt the model policies and filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all communications between the Hanover County School Board and ADF.
Despite these attacks, transgender and nonbinary students, along with their families and allies, have been relentless in advocating for their right to exist at school, including speaking at school board meetings, writing poems, and staging walkouts. In partnership with Equality Virginia, He She Ze and We, Side by Side Virginia, Hanover County NAACP, and more, we supported these brave students by placing a full-page ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in solidarity with trans students, promoting training sessions for community advocates, providing support at school board meetings, and using our platform to uplift community actions.
In addition to attacks from school boards like Hanover, the rights of transgender students were also challenged during Virginia’s legislative session. Sports team bans and an attempt to weaken the law that requires schools to adopt the VDOE’s model policies were all proposed but thwarted by our coalition and community advocates.
We do not anticipate these attacks will end anytime soon, and we’re prepared to do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to ensure that trans and nonbinary kids can attend school just like everyone else, without fear about what name or pronouns they will be called, what bathroom they can use, or whether their school board is committed to protecting them.
We remain committed to sending fewer people to prison and ensuring a system more focused on rehabilitation than punishment through our “People. Not Prisons.” work. Virginia not only locks up more people than many states, it also locks people up for far too long.
This year’s legislative session proved to be difficult for criminal legal reform. Our team worked in coalition with a variety of groups to win supporters and votes on both sides of the aisle. Despite valiant efforts that garnered some bipartisan support, we saw too many bills fail, including bills to modify sentences for incarcerated people who’ve taken concrete action to rehabilitate, the repeal of all mandatory minimums, and the failure to acheive independent oversight of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC). The bill to end long-term solitary confinement instead created a study of the practice, a move intended to delay ending this barbaric practice. Bills to end prison and jail profiteering -- the practice of charging exorbitant amounts for basic products and services, a financial burden often carried by loved ones on the outside -- were also sent for study.
Still, we continue to fight in the courts. We negotiated a favorable settlement in a case on behalf of Nicolas Reyes, who was held in solitary confinement for almost 12 years primarily because he couldn’t speak or read English and therefore couldn’t complete VDOC’s Step-Down program. This was not only a win for Mr. Reyes, but also forced the VDOC to adopt a new department-wide language access policy.
Work in this space is challenging and ongoing, particularly in our current “tough on crime” environment. We believe people who are incarcerated should be treated with respect and dignity. The people in our state prisons and jails are parents, siblings, mentors, and the loved ones of people on the outside. They are potential business owners, social workers, advocates, and changemakers in their communities. They deserve a second chance.
Voting is one of the most powerful tools of America’s democracy; that’s why it always seems to be under attack. We think it’s simple: Everyone should have the right to vote. We fought hard to get the Right to Vote Constitutional Amendment through for the second time in a row -- a requirement to pass a constitutional amendment.
A favorable vote would have placed the amendment on the 2022 ballot for Virginians to decide and pave the way for 250,000 people who’ve served their time to automatically have their voting right restored. 66 percent of Virginia voters recently polled believed that people who’ve served their time should be given the opportunity to vote, demonstrating that people from all parties and walks of life support second chances.
Unfortunately, the bill was voted down by the House Privileges & Elections sub-committee, despite strong support from organizations across the political spectrum, such as American Conservative Union, Americans for Prosperity Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Virginia Catholic Conference, and the Virginia NAACP. There was no opposition. This vote was even more disappointing because the bill’s advocates were not asking legislators to decide if Virginians who have served their time should be able to vote, but that those legislators let Virginia voters decide in this November’s election.
But things of great value are worth fighting for. Our work with the Right to Vote Coalition continues as we host Voting Is A Right – Know Yours tours across the state, helping returned Virginians get their rights restored and register to vote. We’ll continue to defend the enhanced voting protections adopted in 2020 – no excuse absentee voting, greater language access, more flexible voter ID requirements, and the recently implemented same-day voter registration – and we are ready to challenge bad actors who seek to disrupt the election process. We’ll continue to work tirelessly to bring back a right to vote constitutional amendment that strengthens our democracy by letting all people vote.
A Look Forward
What began in Hanover County – a concerted effort by the Youngkin administration to take away the rights of transgender and nonbinary students – has crept into schools across the state.
On Friday, September 16, after the close of business, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) proposed replacing existing model policies for the treatment of transgender and nonbinary students with new policies intended to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and force them to suppress their true selves.
Although not effective as of this writing, the policies would forcibly out transgender and nonbinary students to their caregivers, prohibit teachers from using gender-affirming names and pronouns, and prohibit students from accessing bathrooms and taking part in sports consistent with their gender identity.
On September 26, a 30-day public comment period opened, and within 72 hours over 50,000 comments, the majority opposing the model policies, were submitted by concerned Virginians. This proposal made clear that the administration is wildly out of touch with most Virginians. That’s where we come in. We will continue to work with communities to uplift the voices of students, parents, and allies of transgender and nonbinary students. We’ll continue to fight any legislation on the state and local levels that takes away the rights of any student in the Commonwealth. And we’ll be closely watching the actions of school boards across the state for the legality of their actions.
The stakes could not be higher. Trans and nonbinary children could face discrimination, bullying, abuse, homelessness, and even death if policies like these are adopted.
Amid threats to ban, burn, and censor books that capture the very diversity that makes our country so rich, we find ourselves fighting for the right of our children to grow up to be inclusive, critical thinkers. Make no mistake: The movement to ban books and the teaching of the history of all of America’s people is an attempt to erase the history and lifestyles of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people in our schools and beyond. And we will not allow that to happen.
In this year’s General Assembly, we blocked a classroom censorship bill, but unfortunately, a bill addressing sexually explicit content in schools (SB656) managed to get by. This bill required the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to create a model policy that provides a process for parents to object to books and curricula that they feel contain sexually implicit content. We knew this model policy was problematic as soon as it was published. The policy language is overly broad, can exclude a book based on one paragraph or section of a book taken out of context, and allows individual schools to create a process instead of giving clear guidance. We encouraged our supporters to submit comments opposing this policy. However, despite the fact that it recived many comments in opposition, VDOE adopted a harmful policy intended to eliminate Black, Brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people from Virginia’s school curriculum.
Learning to think for oneself is at the heart of public education. It’s the difference between indoctrination and education. Classrooms should be a place where students are free to ask questions and explore other lived experiences and where teachers are free to discuss historical facts, acknowledge what is missing, and encourage students to stay curious. Anything less promotes ignorance and fear. Fear, of course, too often leads to prejudice, discrimination, and even violence. Public education that values all children creates children who grow up to value diversity and inclusion, who understand that our differences make us stronger, and who can work across those differences to build a better society for us all.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating overturn of Roe v. Wade left Virginians in a purgatory of sorts. While abortion remains legal in the Commonwealth, concerted efforts to severely restrict access to abortion began before the ink on the decision was even dry. Since the ruling, we have focused on dispelling myths surrounding what’s legal in Virginia. Today, abortions are legal in Virginia. People in neighboring states are seeking abortion services in our Commonwealth, and abortion clinics from nearby states are moving here to escape a surge in abortion bans. But we’re not in the clear.
We anticipate a myriad of attacks on reproductive rights in the coming year, including the introduction of 15-week and total abortion bans in the General Assembly and an attempted rollback of essential protections that help people access abortion care.
We’ve received reports of Virginians who were denied necessary medication for health conditions like Lupus because of its potential to induce a miscarriage, hindering people’s healthcare. These are symptoms of even larger issues we may face in the post-Roe world. But we’re not giving up; we're just getting started. Our work in the next year will include being in coalition with reproductive rights organizations through the Virginia Reproductive Equity Alliance, exploring legislative options to guarantee the right to abortion for years to come, and helping young people who are pregnant but don’t have parental consent gain access to abortion services here in Virginia through a process called judicial bypass.
We will defend against any and all attacks targeting reproductive rights in our Commonwealth. We will work relentlessly to kill any bad reproductive bills introduced in the 2023 legislative session and beyond. We will continue our work to combat misinformation about abortion and share resources to get people the care they need. But we cannot do it alone: Your support and engagement are critical as we continue the work to protect abortion access and advance reproductive justice in Virginia.
To complement our “People. Not Prisons.” work, we launched a Second Chance campaign in September. The campaign is designed to humanize people who have been or are currently incarcerated and show that people can and have changed to become productive citizens and contribute to Virginia’s communities.
The campaign introduces you to returned Virginians like Jesse Crosson from Charlottesville, who earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio University while in prison and mentored other incarcerated men. Since his pardon, he has publicly advocated for criminal legal reform, using his social media platforms that have nearly a million followers. Through the campain, you will also meet Sincere Allah from Richmond, who diligently advocates for those who remain incarcerated by testifying before the Virginia General Assembly in support of Second Look legislation and lobbying for legislative reform in federal prisons. Incarcerated women face several challenges upon their return, and Angela Antoine from Hampton knows their struggle better than anyone. That’s why she created a non-profit, House of Dreams Outreach & Reentry, LLC, to help people get back on their feet once they’re released.
And you’ll meet people who are currently incarcerated like Antoine Anderson, a father, son, and fiancée, who throughout his incarceration has proactively taken steps to rehabilitate himself by completing drug treatment and anger management programs, parenting classes, and commercial driver training. Or Courtney Henson, who during his 22 years in prison has written seven books, completed 18 programs, learned three trades, and more.
Through an integrated campaign of digital advertising and an interactive web presence, we hope that you’ll hear their voices, read their stories, and acknowledge we’re all just people. Everyone has the capacity to change. No one deserves to be judged for the rest of their life based on a mistake they may have made. Prisons should be about rehabilitation, not punishment. It should be about returning transformed people back to their communities because they’ve done the work to change.
Courtney D. Henson is an advocate, organizer, and writer who is currently incarcerated in a Virginia prison. He is the author of five books and founder of The Unity Group and The 40 Strong, a network of incarcerated men across several facilities who organize behind bars to push for criminal legal reform.
Mr. Henson doesn’t let his incarceration define him or keep him from staying active. While incarcerated, he has completed more than 15 programs, acquired three trade certificates, and created The Unity Group Publishing for writers in prison who want their voices heard. During the 2022 General Assembly session, Mr. Henson worked with the ACLU-VA to advocate for the Second Look legislation and protect the progress made on expanding the earned sentence credit programs, both positive initiatives that encourage people who are incarcerated to rehabilitate and earn their way home.
The Virginia Reproductive Equity Alliance (VREA) is comprised of various reproductive health and advocacy organizations that work together to fearlessly protect and advance reproductive justice for every person in the Commonwealth, particularly people for whom access to reproductive healthcare is systemically withheld or denied.
The business of VREA is done through grassroots, communications, and policy committees. These groups meet weekly to discuss short and long-term strategies for advancing reproductive justice and addressing the needs of people who need reproductive care. Strategies are then executed through community education, legislative advocacy, and grassroots organizing.
The coalition has worked tirelessly to respond to the overturn of Roe v. Wade. In addition to public education work to dispel myths surrounding abortion’s legality in Virginia, the coalition worked together to fight against bad bills introduced during the General Assembly, organized protests and rallies after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was first leaked and later released, and uplifted abortion funds who provide critical direct services to people both in and outside of Virginia.
We are proud to be in coalition with each of the VREA’s member organizations as we work toward a Virginia where reproductive rights are a guarantee and no person is denied reproductive freedom and autonomy.
The Virginia Equity in Education Coalition (VEEC) came together in 2022 in response to the Hanover County School Board’s constant attacks on transgender and nonbinary students. Since then, the coalition has expanded its mission to serve LGBTQ+ youth, as well as Black, Indigenous, and other youth of color, in a collective pursuit to ensure affirming educational environments for all.
Understanding the urgent need to protect transgender and nonbinary youth from discrimination, the coalition, which includes Equality Virginia, He She Ze and We, Side by Side Virginia, and Hanover County NAACP, has worked tirelessly to advocate for policy changes both at the local and state levels. Showing up at school board meetings alongside Hanover County parents, students, and community members, the coalition supports and empowers local advocacy efforts. Despite ruthless efforts to single out and discriminate against trans and nonbinary kids, many parents fought back. Chris Berg, a Hanover dad, wrote a powerful op-ed about fighting for the rights of his nonbinary child to simply exist in school. Kelly Merrill, a Hanover-mom-turned-activist, persistently rallied the community to pack school board meetings and share messages of solidarity for transgender and nonbinary kids, including her own child.
It takes a village to build a Commonwealth where all students, including transgender and nonbinary students, can go to school without fear, stigma, and discrimination.