There are different ways of opposing discrimination and bringing about social change. One is advocating for new or strengthened legal protections; another is speaking to the hearts of people so they will put aside the fears that underlie unjust practices. The two approaches are by no means mutually exclusive, but Amy
Adams chose to focus on the second when she mobilized her Stafford County neighbors to oppose hurtful school policies.
Amy’s journey into activism started with her daughter Morgan. At 9, Morgan, raised as a boy, said she was gay, and at 10 told her parents that she was transgender. “We knew she was serious,” says Amy, “so we followed her lead.”
After consulting with medical professionals and people at Morgan’s elementary school, the family decided Morgan would socially transition over the summer before fourth grade, to give everyone time to adjust. All went very well, says Amy. Morgan flourished. As a person, she came fully into her own. “I can’t imagine her as anyone other than exactly who she is now,” says Amy.
Socially and academically, Morgan was thriving. The bullying she had endured in second and third grade ended, and the girls supported and encouraged her. The school administration accepted everything Morgan and her family asked for. “They had never had an openly transgender child before,” says Amy, “and they really wanted the best for her.”
All the daily details were working out smoothly. At first, the school offered Morgan use of the nurse’s office or staff bathroom, but the kids wouldn’t have any of it. The girls said Morgan should use theirs, and inquiries to the main office and the school board indicated no concerns.
The tranquility Morgan and her family experienced at the start of the year was, however, deceptive. Hearing about Morgan’s routine, a group of parents started organizing opposition in secret. They courted politicians and the press and circulated a petition called Save Our Schools, with a plan to come out publicly all at once at an upcoming county School Board meeting, where they would push a resolution to ban Morgan from using the girls’ bathroom.
The family knew nothing about these plans until two days before the meeting when a friend told Amy. Shocked, Amy contacted a trusted advisor, civil rights lawyer Asaf Orr, as well as leaders from Equality Virginia. They arranged to come and observe, and EV sent out an alert to Stafford County area members.
At the standing-room-only meeting, 26 speakers came forward to voice their outrage, portraying 11-year-old Morgan as a would-be predator and spinning scenarios of rape in the girls’ room. Only Morgan’s father Jonathan spoke up for Morgan, but he did so eloquently. He told the crowd how his views of masculinity had changed because of Morgan and how since her transition she had changed from withdrawn, bullied, and depressed to happy and popular. He urged people to reframe the dialogue as about a child’s well-being and not about clothing or bathrooms. “He was amazing and the epitome of what a father should be,” says Amy.
No decisions were made, and the spectators went home. However, at one o’clock that morning in a closed-door session the Board reversed their earlier position. They passed the resolution after checking that no nondiscrimination laws were being violated. (They weren’t: gender orientation is not a protected class.) The principal called Amy before school the next morning to break the news. “From that point on, Morgan was banned,” says Amy.
Over the rest of the year and in fifth grade, Morgan made the best of the situation and tried not to care. Amy, however, had a choice to make. Middle school was ahead and with it the same battles for Morgan’s rights. How would she fight this time? First, Amy researched the legal and political landscape nationwide. “I needed to learn all I could about how influence works,” she says. Amy secured help from the ACLU and closely watched the suit of Gavin Grimm (a 2017 OUTstanding Virginian) against the Gloucester County school system over the right to use the boys’ room, which had much in common with Morgan’s situation.
In the end, Amy decided not to take the “legal path” and instead work to change people's minds through education. She reasoned that for decision makers to change their minds, it was necessary for them to understand Morgan “as a human being with feelings and not as a chess piece.” Amy cultivated good relationships with school board representatives and the superintendent. She connected with advocacy groups at area colleges. She read the comments sections of articles and followed Facebook posts, personally thanking the people who voiced support for Morgan. In the process, she also connected with families of transgender schoolchildren.
Amy’s efforts to change attitudes in her community are bearing fruit. Although Morgan, now in middle school, is still barred from the girls’ room, and locker rooms as well, public opinion is shifting towards her side. A nationally televised rally was held for Morgan, and many people from the community showed up holding heart-shaped signs in solidarity with her. The expected opposition did not materialize in force: Save Our Schools had effectively disappeared.
Amy is now more active on the political front. During the 2016 General Assembly, she spoke out against her delegate Mark Cole's highly invasive bathroom bill, which, had it passed, would have allowed anyone’s gender to be questioned. She is working with the Human Rights Campaign to lobby the US Congress for transgender-friendly policies in schools. But still, she prefers local action, including connecting with other parents of transgender kids. Inspired by the work of Richmond mom Shannon McKay (a 2016 OUTstanding Virginian), Amy started a He, She, Ze, and We group in Fredericksburg. Her Facebook group, Virginia Parents of Transgender Youth, has 160 members. Recently she hosted a social event with 50 families. “The teens immediately bonded,” she observes. “It’s so important not to feel like you're the only kid.”
In 2017, Amy founded Equality Stafford, a group of teachers, community leaders, parents, and students. The young organization successfully advocated for the school board to form an Equality, Diversity, and Opportunity Committee and is helping the county update its nondiscrimination policies. Amy is currently leading a campaign to make sure all Stafford County schools have GSAs. This is a huge priority, she says, because “for some children, schools are the only place to be themselves.”
Morgan is in seventh grade now. She inspires her peers to speak out against prejudice and discriminatory policies. Amy reports that her daughter has absorbed a key lesson from the four-year struggle for her rights. “She knows her parents and allies will always have her back,” says Amy, “but she also knows you have to be there advocating for yourself.”