The Virginia congressional delegation’s bipartisan monthly meeting Monday started out cordial enough, with Rep. Bob Good (R) asking special guest Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to lead the delegation in a prayer before sitting down to a Chick-fil-A lunch.
But then Youngkin’s new policy for transgender students came up — ultimately leading to a heated exchange between Good and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D), according to multiple aides with first- or secondhand knowledge of the meeting, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Youngkin’s administration this weekend unveiled a new directive restricting the rights of transgender students in schools, ordering all 133 school districts to adopt policies that would require transgender students to use facilities and participate in activities corresponding with their sex at birth. It would also bar students from changing their names or pronouns at school without parental permission, putting Virginia at the center of a national debate about the relationships between schools and parents when it comes to kids’ gender identities.
Responses to the policy — which would go into effect after 30 days of public comment — have been deeply divided. Republicans and parental rights advocates have applauded it as the right thing to do for families, while Democrats and LGBTQ advocates have sharply criticized it, saying the measure will lead to bullying of vulnerable children who are already marginalized and need support at school.
Monday’s meeting with Youngkin starkly captured those emotional divides.
In between talk of economic development and infrastructure, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) brought up her concerns to Youngkin about the new policy’s mental health impact on transgender students, according to the aides. Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has showed that about 2 percent of high school students identify as transgender, and 35 percent of those have attempted suicide. For Wexton, whose niece is transgender, the issue is personal, and she had previously publicly called the policy “a vile and disgusting attack on vulnerable trans kids” of which Youngkin “should be ashamed.”
Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D) and Don Beyer (D) built on Wexton’s concerns, ranging from higher risks of suicide among transgender students to the constitutionality of the policy and its impact on inviting business to Virginia, aides said. Youngkin described the policy as a statement on parental rights in education, according to one of the people.
When it was Good’s turn to speak, he defended the governor and his administration’s new policy as the right thing to do for children. In Good’s view, schools and teachers were “grooming” children to change their gender, arguing they are being forced into gender transitions.
Rather than bullying of trans students contributing to suicide, Good argued that “the fact that these kids are killing themselves is because of grooming,” or something to that effect, and that they were being “forced” to undergo gender-affirming surgeries — comments that the aides said raised the temperature in the room.
Spanberger responded forcefully, telling Good, “That’s not f---ing true.”
Good stood his ground and insisted he was the one telling the truth, according to people familiar with the exchange, before Sen. Tim Kaine (D) stepped in to calm things down by reciting a Bible verse, Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
A spokeswoman for Good did not respond to requests for comment, but Good confirmed the tense exchange occurred in an interview with Punchbowl News, saying that when it was his turn to speak he sought to refute Spanberger, accusing Democrats of supporting “grooming” of children and the “mutilation of children” through gender-affirming surgeries. He then said Spanberger yelled out and cursed at him to call him a liar, though he said she was the one lying about Democrats’ position.
A spokesman for Spanberger said in a statement that she “always appreciates the opportunity to have a candid conversation with the Governor about the issues facing Virginia’s Seventh District,” noting she discussed emergency preparedness, Chesapeake Bay watershed conservation needs — and “her perspective as a parent related to recent education policy announcements made by the Governor’s administration.”
“Separately, she will always stand up against conspiracy theories that harm or attack Virginia’s students, their parents, and their educators — as was the case when one of her congressional colleagues did just that,” the statement added.
She had previously said after Youngkin’s policy was released that the move “will hurt children, especially LGBTQ children who already suffer higher rates of depression and are at greater risk of suicide.”
Good, a self-described biblical conservative, frequently speaks out against transgender rights, and has often traveled to school board meetings in his district to urge parents and school administrators to reject policies accepting transgender students at school. On the same day of the meeting with Youngkin, he appeared at a news conference hosted by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to support her bill making it a felony to perform gender-affirming care — including treatment such as puberty-blocking drugs and surgery — on transgender kids, which Good equated to child abuse, reiterating his belief that it led to suicide.
Historically, the Virginia delegation’s private monthly meetings are opportunities for lawmakers to strengthen working relationships across the aisle and find common cause in helping Virginia. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D), the dean of the Virginia delegation, said in a statement that he was “proud of the long-standing tradition of being able to work together on issues we agree on for the betterment of all Virginians,” noting that it was a unique tradition the state lawmakers maintained compared with other states.
But Scott added, “Obviously, there are issues we disagree on,” without getting into specifics.
A spokeswoman for Youngkin declined to comment.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.