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Trump Rolls Back Civil Rights Protection for Transgender Students

A gender-inclusive restroom at the University of California, Irvine. (Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr Creative Commons)

Ignoring alarming rates of bigotry and violence against transgender youth, the Trump administration on Wednesday revoked an Obama era policy protecting the civil right of transgender public school students to use restrooms matching their gender identity.

President Donald Trump campaigned with the trans-friendly viewpoint that transgender students should be allowed to use whichever bathroom “they feel is appropriate.” However, the departments of Education and Justice informed the Supreme Court on Wednesday that they were ordering US public schools to ignore guidance memos issued by the Obama administration in 2015 and 2016 affirming the civil right of transgender students to use the school restrooms that match their gender identity.

“Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) and its implementing regulations prohibit sex discrimination in educational programs and activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance,” the 2016 guidance memo states. “This prohibition encompasses discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status.”

“We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence,” former Obama-era education secretary John B. King Jr. explained upon issuing the 2016 memo.

The Trump administration swiftly reversed federal protection for transgender students, explaining Education Secretary Betsy DeVos arguing that “this is an issue best solved at the state and local level.”

“Schools, communities, and families can find – and in many cases have found – solutions that protect all students,” added DeVos, who according to the New York Times initially opposed the revocation.

However, LGBTQ advocates scoffed at the notion that many states would actually protect the rights of transgender students. Thirteen states sued the Obama administration over what they called its “unconstitutional” protection policy. Critics doubt whether DeVos — whose family has a long history of supporting anti-LGBTQ causes and organizations — or Sessions, who has consistently opposed hate crime, employment discrimination and other protections for LGBTQ people, will ensure transgender students are adequately protected from harm.

The Obama guidelines, which threatened to withhold federal funding from school districts that force students to use restrooms that do not conform to their gender identity, have already been temporarily blocked by a federal judge in Texas, who ruled in August that the administration did not follow proper rule-making procedure when drafting the directive.

The Oakland, California-based legal advocacy group Transgender Law Center said the underlying law guaranteeing equality remains on the books, noting that “fortunately, the White House does not have the power to singlehandedly change federal law, and school districts across the country are still legally obligated to comply with Title IX and protect transgender students.”

It can be dangerous to be transgender in America. Violence, sometimes deadly, against trans people is on the rise. Recent statistics on violence against transgender youth are scarce, however a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found the vast majority — 82 percent — of trans youth felt unsafe at school. Nearly 90 percent reported being harassed in school, and a majority said they were physically attacked. A majority of trans students also reported being cyberbullied. More than one in 10 said they were victims of sexual assault.

According to the study, abuse was most common in the South, where 83 percent of transgender students reported being harassed and where the majority of the states that sued the Obama administration over its civil rights defense are located.

Many conservative groups welcomed the news of the rollback of transgender civil rights protection. “Our daughters should never be forced to share private, intimate spaces with male classmates, even if those young men are struggling with these issues,” Vicki Wilson, a member of Students and Parents for Privacy, told BBC News. “It violates their right to privacy and harms their dignity.”

The leading right-wing blog The Daily Caller hailed what it called a “return to normalcy” and noted the concern of “transgender enthusiasts.” One reader commented that the “best way to cure gender confusion [is to] look in your underwear.”

LGBTQ civil rights and some education advocates expressed anger and fear over the administration’s move. “By rescinding these protections, the Trump administration is compromising the safety and security of some of our most vulnerable children,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told BBC News. “Reversing this guidance tells trans kids that it’s okay with the Trump administration and the Department of Education for them to be abused and harassed at school for being trans.”

However, both Sessions and DeVos said in their statements that they want all pupils, “including LGBTQ students,” to enjoy learning environments that are free from “discrimination, bullying and harassment.”

“Attacking our children… is no way to say you support and respect LGBTQ people,” countered National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling in an interview with the Washington Post.

The Supreme Court announced last October that it would rule in the case of a transgender high school student in Virginia whose school banned him from using the boys restroom. Meanwhile, progressive school districts across the nation said they would ignore Trump’s reversal and work to ensure transgender students enjoy the equality they deserve.

“CPS (Chicago Public Schools) led the way among school districts on bathroom policies for transgender students and staff, and we have no intention of backing down no matter what President Trump does to discriminate against the LGBTQ community,” district spokeswoman Emily Bittner told the Chicago Tribune.

“At a time when civil rights are under attack, we will continue to work locally to protect all of our residents from harassment and discrimination,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee affirmed in a joint statement with Interim San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Myong Leigh and Board of Education President Shamann Walton. “All students deserve to learn in an atmosphere that is free of fear and discrimination. While attending school, no child should feel overwhelmed by the simple decision of which bathroom to use, or fear the consequences of entering a locker room.”

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