The Slatest

Virginia Teacher Fired for Refusing to Use Transgender Student’s New Pronouns, Sues District for Discrimination

A “safe space” sticker on a high school classroom door on Sept. 9.
A “safe space” sticker on a high school classroom door on Sept. 9.
Anna Reed/Statesman Journal, Salem Statesman Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

A Virginia public school teacher fired in December by the school district for refusing to call a transgender student, who had recently transitioned, by the student’s new pronouns filed a lawsuit Monday alleging wrongful termination “for exercising his rights to free speech and free exercise.” Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School in eastern Virginia, said in the suit that he had gone to great lengths to accommodate the ninth-grade student, who had transitioned from female to male over the summer, addressing the student by his male name, but stopped short of using the student’s masculine pronouns he/him/his.* Vlaming was threatened with disciplinary action by the school, if he refused to comply with the student’s request.

When Vlaming refused to refer to the student as asked, at one point referring to “her” in front of the class during an exercise, the student objected, waiting until after the class had finished and other students had cleared out before addressing the issue with the teacher. “Mr. Vlaming, you may have your religion,” the student said, “but you need to respect who I am.” The student then withdrew from the class.

Vlaming was suspended for insubordination and, weeks later, fired by the school board. In his suit the 47-year-old teacher, who had been at the school for seven years, says that his religious beliefs prevented him from addressing a teenager the way that was asked of him. Which core religious tenet was violated? “Vlaming’s conscience and religious practice prohibits him from intentionally lying, and he sincerely believes that referring to a female as a male by using an objectively male pronoun is telling a lie,” the lawsuit argues.

Vlaming said his willingness to refer to the student by name, skipping gender altogether, was an effort at “mutual tolerance.” The student and school district refused however. “I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening,” West Point High Principal Jonathan Hochman said after the incident. “That discrimination then leads to creating a hostile learning environment. And the student had expressed that. The parent had expressed that,” the school superintendent said. “They felt disrespected.”

The French teacher complained at the time that his job had been put at risk for expressing views held by “most of the world for most of human history.” “That is not tolerance,” Vlaming said of school officials reaction. “That is coercion.” In his suit, Vlaming now claims it was he that was discriminated against by the district and is seeking $500,000 in lost wages, as well as an additional $500,000 for pain, suffering, and emotional distress.

Correction, Oct. 9, 2019: An earlier version of this post misstated that West Point High School is in southern Virginia.