In a terrible turn of events for transgender rights in the U.S., the Trump administration repealed an Obama-era policy that protected the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. In my opinion as a former teacher and as someone who identifies as gender fluid, the Obama policy was extremely good. Because, you know, students should feel safe at the schools they attend–and being able to use the bathroom of their choice is a safety concern.
The New York Times reported that the federal Education and Justice departments issued a statement together on Wednesday night which rejected the memos from the previous administration. Those previous memos had stated that preventing transgender students from using the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity is a violation of anti-discrimination laws (like Title IX). Oy.
As the Washington Post reported, this “Dear Colleagues” letter will be sent to public schools across the country–and the problem is that it offers literally no guidance to the schools, but only explains that the protections were lifted because they weren’t publicly examined and analyzed, and “drew legal challenges.” What legal challenges, I don’t know, considering it’s discrimination to not allow students to use the gendered bathroom that they identify with.
As Laverne Cox, a transgender woman, actor, and activist said recently on CBS This Morning, it’s about the fact that these bathroom bills are more than just what bathroom to use, but about personhood:
“What people should know about these bathroom bills that criminalize trans people… is that these bills are not about bathrooms. They’re about whether trans people have the right to exist in public space. If we can’t access public bathrooms, we can’t go to school, we can’t work, we can’t go to healthcare facilities—this is about public accommodations and public accommodations are always the key to civil rights.”
So, how did this all come about? Thanks to the debates between U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as the New York Times reported. Sessions wanted to push for fast action against the protections, as a result of court cases like Gavin Grimm, the Virginia teenager whose battle to use the boys’ bathroom has been ongoing for two years.
DeVos was hesistant to sign off on the letter because she feared the “potential harm” that rescinding these protections would cause to transgender students. Because of the disagreement between the two, the issue was brought to the White House–where Trump unsurprisingly took Sessions’ side, meaning that DeVos had to give in.
DeVos’s office made a statement saying that protecting students in America is “not merely a federal mandate but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate” but the issue at hand is “best solved at the state and local level.” OK…
Statement from @BetsyDeVos re latest on #transgender student guidance via @usedgov pic.twitter.com/7HY8f9uF3D
— Celeste Katz (@CelesteKatzNYC) February 23, 2017
What’s most ironic is the fact that the letter actually does condemn bullying, although rescinding these rights for transgender students seems to or nullify that, considering there isn’t a precedence or example set for the general student body and school administrations to follow. Without guidance on the issue basically turns the school yard into the Wild, Wild West–since no one will actually know what to do or enforce on a wider-scale. The letter reads:
“Schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment. Please note that this withdrawal of these guidance documents does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying, or harassment.”
However, Catherine Lhamon, the head of Obama Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, stated in the Post:
“In a kindergarten class where students line up by gender to go to the bathroom, she said, “a student has to decide which line to get into and the teacher has to decide which line to accept that student into, and both of them have to field questions from other students in the class. Any of those choices raises potential for discrimination and potential for harm that all of the students and teachers in a school have to navigate. It’s not an abstraction for the people who live it every day.”
Having taught students who identified as transgender and gender fluid, this news makes my heart sink to the pit of my stomach. These students are not abstractions–they are real people who deserve to have the same rights as cis-gendered people. It is strange to me how the Trump administration does not see the correlation and similarities between rights for transgender and gender fluid people and those laws reminiscent of the Jim Crow era—although considering Sessions’ history on the latter issue, it’s hardly surprising. Such issues deal with a human’s civil rights that aren’t a privilege, but an actual right.
Again, these laws aren’t just about what bathrooms students can use, but about whether or not transgender people have the right to feel safe–and have the right to feel as though their humanity is being perceived as equal. Suggesting anything less suggests that people who are transgender aren’t equal to those who are cis-gender, and that’s just not OK.