The Obama administration advised public schools Friday to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
As “significant guidance,” the recommendations outlined in a letter on transgender students lack the force of law or an executive order. However, the administration’s latest action marks another step in federal recognition of transgender rights at a time when those rights are under attack by Republican legislators at the state level.
The U.S. Department of Justice this week filed a countersuit seeking a preliminary injunction to block implementation of North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom discrimination law. Attorney General Loretta Lynch delivered impassioned remarks that spoke to the nation’s long, and ongoing, struggle with civil rights.
Lynch, during her address, directly addressed the people of North Carolina. “You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm—but that just is not the case,” she said. “Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society—all it does is harm innocent Americans.”
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Top civil rights officials at the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice said in the letter that Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funding, extends to gender identity.
The departments consider gender identity the same as sex for the purposes of Title IX.
“This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity,” the officials said. “The Departments’ interpretation is consistent with courts’ and other agencies’ interpretations of Federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination.”
Including gender identity within the scope of Title IX protections could open schools in noncompliance to lawsuits and endanger their federal aid.
Within hours of the announcement, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) threatened to defy the administration and encouraged superintendents to do the same, even if that means forgoing an estimated $10 billion in federal education funds.
The Obama administration officials provided examples of policies and emerging practices for supporting transgender students. Rather than endorsing specific policies, the supplemental document shared how some state and school districts are responding to common questions about school records, privacy, and terminology.
School administrators nationwide are looking for guidance as they navigate uncertain territory. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is in the process of developing a position statement on transgender student rights in the K-12 education system.
“Transgender students are already at high risk for suicide and other destructive behaviors,” Michael Allison, NASSP president and a principal in Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “While principals and other committed educators look for ways to embrace these marginalized students, policies in some states push them further to the margins. We find that unacceptable and we cannot stay silent.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality provided additional recommendations on how to ensure schools are in compliance with the new Title IX interpretation.
The Obama administration in a blog post shared the story of Landon, a transgender student who reportedly attempted suicide multiple times before he found a supportive school environment.
“Landon’s new school is committed to treating every student with dignity and respect, and together they have found ways to allow Landon to survive and thrive in his new surroundings. But getting there has taken time, and the path hasn’t always been clear,” the post said. “The resources we released today give schools like Landon’s the guidance they’ve been asking for to navigate issues they may be confronting for the first time.”