In the ongoing battle over anti-LGBTQ+ policies in one Virginia school district, a 15-year-old high school student has emerged as a leading organizer and tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ kids.
According to local paper Cardinal News, Keely Meadows has been speaking out against Roanoke County’s anti-trans policies at school board meetings and organizing demonstrations for over six months, even as the board’s conservative majority has ignored her.
“We know that students can only learn effectively when they feel safe and supported.”
“I’m one of those people they turn their heads at and don’t listen to,” said Meadows, who came out as trans in elementary school but later detransitioned. “And it’s sad because I’m a student.”
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Earlier this year, under Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released its 2023 model policies for the treatment of transgender students. The model policies require teachers to use a student’s legal name and the pronouns associated with their “biological sex” unless a parent submits written instructions to use a different name or pronouns. Even when parents do submit written instructions, the policies allow teachers to ignore them and continue to misgender them. In August, the Roanoke County School Board became the first in the state to adopt the new policies.
But as the Cardinal News notes, the district has been rocked by conflicts over LGBTQ+ students’ right since at least February, when a Glenvar High School student falsely accused a classmate who is trans of recording her in the girls’ bathroom. (The school has reportedly refused to issue a statement clarifying that it has investigated the incident and found the accusation to be false.) The accused student responded to the accusation at the following month’s school board meeting. Then, in June, 31 parents, students, and school staffers spoke out in defense of the LGBTQ+ community after a parent complained during the board’s May meeting about Pride decorations at his child’s school.
Things escalated over the summer, with heated exchanges leading to several arrests. The district rejected the U.S. Department of Justice’s offer to mediate discussions, opting instead to increase police presence at school board meetings, a tactic a Roanoke psychiatrist told the Cardinal would likely intimidate students who want to speak out.
Meadows has not been intimidated. She has continued to attend monthly board meetings, where she often speaks in opposition to adults from local church groups. She has called out board members for ignoring her and looking at their phones during her comments, and she demanded an apology from chair Brent Hudson for “causing emotional distress” to the LGBTQ+ students. A local pastor and former school board member posted a photo of her family on social media and later sued her mother and a Roanoke City Council member for defamation after getting into an argument with Meadows during which she claims he touched her.
Ahead of last week’s school board election, Meadows canvassed for candidates Mary Wilson and Samantha Newell, both of whom lost to candidates backed by the local Republican Party.
“It was worth it because we provided a second option,” she told the Cardinal News, “And thousands of people across Roanoke County took advantage of that second option.”
The day after the election, Meadows attended the November school board meeting holding a sign that read, “I am not safe here.” When she got up to speak, she noted that Hudson lost “almost a fifth of his vote to a write-in candidate.”
“We showed the board that you are challenged,” she said before offering a prayer for all students in the country to be given “equitable access to learning opportunities.” She also referenced an August text message exchange between board member Cheryl Facciani and vice chair Tim Greenway in which they reportedly dismissed the opposition to LGBTQ+ policies as “20–25 people.”
Facciani also derisively mentioned the text exchange. “I’d like to thank all of our speakers who continue to come forth. It may be 20 to 25 at times, sometimes it’s 16,” she said.
While Meadows feels that the board is simply not listening to her, she refuses to give up. After the success of a demonstration she organized in September, which drew more than 60 students and adults, she’s begun planning a national event for next year on a much larger scale. According to the Cardinal News, she wants to get a permit for a rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.