In the summer of 2018, a transgender student at West Point High School in West Point, Virginia, had transitioned, asking his French teacher to refer to him with masculine pronouns: he, him, his.
But the instructor, Peter Vlaming, did not comply, he said in a lawsuit. Citing his religious beliefs, he promised to use only the student’s name and avoid pronouns entirely. Administrators eventually gave the teacher an ultimatum: Use the student’s correct pronouns or face disciplinary action, he said.
Then, on Oct. 31, 2018, his second-year French students wore virtual-reality goggles and walked around the classroom. The transgender student seemed about to crash when the teacher told another student to help their classmate.
“Don’t let her hit the wall,” Vlaming shouted.
That was the last straw for the student, who withdrew from Vlaming’s class. But it was also the last straw for school officials, who suspended the teacher for insubordination, and from the school board, which later fired him, citing how Vlaming repeatedly had ignored orders from his bosses.
On Monday, Vlaming sued school district officials for allegedly violating his right to speak freely and exercise his religion, among other claims. “Vlaming’s conscience and religious practice prevents him from intentionally lying,” his lawsuit said, “and he sincerely believes that referring to a female as a male by using an objectively male pronoun is telling a lie.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for West Point Schools and its board said it denies any wrongdoing and will “vigorously defend” against Vlaming’s claim.
“West Point Public Schools’ primary focus is on students, staff, and instruction,” the spokesperson said, “and we will continue to direct our energy toward maintaining a high-quality learning environment in our schools.”
He’s not the first teacher to receive some scrutiny for refusing to refer to a transgender student by their preferred pronouns: A math teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, faced reprimands from his principal in August for doing the same thing. Last fall, a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio said he was “formally charged” for his opposition.
Vlaming’s lawsuit, which also seeks an injunction against school officials for punishing teachers who refer to students based on their “biological sex,” comes amid ideological and legal battles surrounding gender identity, religion and anti-discrimination policies. The Trump administration has rolled back protections for transgender people in schools, in the military and in health care. In August, a federal judge ruled that a high school in Gloucester County, Va., just down the road from West Point, had violated the rights of student Gavin Grimm after he was barred from using the bathroom of his choice.
Vlaming’s legal battle began in the summer of 2018, after the student at his rural high school, about 40 miles east of Richmond, came out as transgender. The student, who had already taken two years of French with Vlaming, asked him to begin referring to him with masculine pronouns.
But Vlaming called the student female pronouns behind his back to classmates, his lawsuit said, leading to meetings of the teacher, student, the student’s mother and various school administrators, who all asked Vlaming to use the proper pronouns. After each meeting, however, he continued using only the student’s name in class.
“I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening,” West Point High School Principal Jonathan Hochman later said at a school board meeting, according to the Associated Press.
Citing policies against creating a hostile learning environment, administrators eventually told Vlaming that he would face disciplinary action if he didn’t comply. One day after the Halloween incident, on Nov. 1, 2018, he was suspended by the superintendent for failing to do so. A week later, administrators recommended that the school board fire him.
“That discrimination then leads to creating a hostile learning environment. And the student had expressed that. The parent had expressed that,” West Point schools superintendent Laura Abel said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “They felt disrespected.”
On Dec. 6, 2018, at a packed school board meeting that lasted more than five hours, with crowds of West Point students backing both the teacher and his former student, Vlaming maintained that he was being coerced into using language he didn’t agree with. But the school board disagreed.
“The issue before us was not one mistaken slip of the tongue,” the school board said in a statement to WWBT.
His firing led to dueling petitions as well as a walkout in which about 100 students marched out of school carrying signs that read, “Men are men. Women are women,” the TV station reported.
Vlaming filed his lawsuit in state court on Monday, naming the West Point school district as well as Abel, Hochman and Suzanne Aunspach, an assistant principal.
Caleb Dalton, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization in Arizona representing Vlaming, said in a statement Monday that the teacher went out of his way to accommodate the student. ADF has run afoul of civil rights advocates, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has classified it as a a hate group.
The ADF’s vice president and senior counsel, Jeremy Tedesco, disputed that classification, calling the SPLC “discredited and unreliable” in a statement sent to The Post. “In stark contrast to the SPLC’s name-calling tactics that divide rather than unify people, ADF’s legal victories-including nine wins at the Supreme Court since 2011-have expanded the freedoms of all Americans,” Tedesco said in the statement.
“The school board didn’t care how well Peter treated this student,” Dalton said. “It was on a crusade to compel conformity.”
He charged that West Point schools are compelling Vlaming to “take sides in an ongoing public debate about gender dysphoria,” according to the lawsuit, and forcing him to “express ideas about human nature” that he believes are false.
For the school and for the student’s family, however, it comes down to a matter of respect – and of following instructions. On Halloween 2018, after Vlaming referred to the male-identifying student as “her,” the student waited for the classroom to empty out, according to the teacher’s lawsuit.
“Mr. Vlaming, you may have your religion,” he said, upon approaching the teacher, “but you need to respect who I am.”