A sexual assault by a reportedly gender-fluid teenager in a school toilet has become a hot-button issue in the US state of Virginia's gubernatorial election, illustrating an ideological fault line among voters.
This week, a 15-year-old was found guilty by a juvenile court judge of assaulting the fellow student in a girls' bathroom in May at a Loudoun County high school in Virginia, a politically divided state whose election is seen as a bellwether for Joe Biden's presidency.
The father of the victim has told local media that the defendant is gender-fluid, which could not be independently verified by AFP, and, according to the Washington Post, was not raised in court on Monday.
The case -- and the victim's father's claim that the attacker wore a skirt on the day of the assault -- has hit the national stage, as Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin taps into parents' anger at the local school board.
The board has come under fire in large part for transferring the accused teen to another school where he allegedly assaulted another peer while facing trial.
The furor has re-ignited heated debate over a Loudoun County schools policy adopted in August allowing transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identities.
For political scientist Larry Sabato, Youngkin has seized on the debate, which splits Republicans and Democrats.
"This issue is mainly stirring energy among GOP voters and might increase their turnout," the University of Virginia professor told AFP, referring to Republicans, known in Washington as the Grand Old Party.
"I find it very strange that such a localized matter has become prominent fodder in a statewide campaign -- but that is what Youngkin has chosen to make it."
- Entrenched camps -
Transgender peoples' rights have agitated American politics for years.
On the issue of whether transgender people -- a tiny fraction of the US population -- should be able to use gender-split spaces that match their gender identity, Republicans and Democrats are in opposite camps.
Republican conservatives say transgender people should have to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth, leaning on an argument that it is dangerous to allow "men" into women's bathrooms.
Democrats denounce this as a misplaced fear leading to unfair targeting of innocent people.
The assaults have been tangled up in anger over the transgender guidelines in Loudoun County, with parents at a Tuesday school board meeting linking them to the policy, the Washington Post reported.
In June, before the policy was approved, a public board meeting turned heated, with police making arrests, including of Scott Smith, the May assault victim's father. The incident was caught on video, which went viral.
During the session, Superintendent Scott Ziegler said he was not aware of any assaults by transgender students in the county.
"The predator transgender student simply does not exist," he said.
- 'Transgender radicalism' -
The stance infuriated Virginia conservatives, and things got worse for Ziegler when residents learned that the perpetrator of the assault had been charged with committing another assault on October 6. That case is still ongoing.
The controversy took on a new dimension when Youngkin took up the issue, sensing an opportunity to win back voters who had distanced themselves from former president Donald Trump.
The 54-year-old businessman did not mention transgender policies in a recent speech.
But he accused the "liberal progressive movement" of inserting "political operatives into our school system, disguised as school boards," taking a tone that has resonated with millions of conservatives in Virginia and other states who are bristling at what they call "transgender radicalism."
Democrats, and their candidate Terry McAuliffe, who fear defeat in Virginia could point to a national political trend, have been on the defensive.
Bent on keeping the governorship of the state, former president Barack Obama came to McAuliffe's aid to rally support.
In a meeting on Saturday, Obama hit out at the tack of Youngkin's campaign.
"We don't have time to be wasting on these phony, trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage the right-wing media pedals to juice their ratings," he said.