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U.S. Directive on Transgender Access Intensifies Debate

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May 13, 2016

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Transgender Access Intensifies Debate

Source: NY Times

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The Obama administration’s directive Friday on the use of school bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender students intensified the latest fierce battle in the nation’s culture wars, with conservatives calling it an illegal overreach that will put children in danger and advocates for transgender rights hailing it as a breakthrough for civil rights.

The policy drew a swift backlash from conservative politicians, groups and parents.

In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appealed to local school boards and superintendents not to abide by the directive, noting that there were just a few weeks left in the school year and time over the summer to fight the policy with legislation or legal action. “We will not be blackmailed,” he said.

“I believe it is the biggest issue facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public schools,” Mr. Patrick, a Republican, said at a news conference. “Parents are not going to send their 14-year-old daughters into the shower or bathroom with 14-year-old boys. It’s not going to happen.”

With a jab at another job Mr. Patrick has held, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said, “I think this does underscore the risk of electing a right-wing radio host to a statewide office.”

Earlier in the day, the Justice and Education Departments sent a letter to school districts saying that students must be allowed to use the facilities that match the sex they identify as, even if that conflicts with their anatomical sex. For districts that refuse to comply, the directive carries the potential threat of legal action or the withholding of federal funds.

The administration had already taken that position in scattered cases around the country — from a school district in the Chicago suburb, to a district in rural Virginia to, most prominently, this week’s lawsuit challenging a North Carolina state law — but Friday’s directive was the most sweeping attempt yet to impose that view, turning it into a national issue.

A recent poll found that a majority of Americans opposed laws like North Carolina’s that require transgender people to use facilities that match the sex listed on their birth certificates, though the survey did not specifically ask about schools and children. Republicans were evenly split, while Democrats and independents were strongly opposed to such requirements.

The events this week demonstrate how starkly views vary by region. The Massachusetts State Senate passed a bill that would allow transgender people to use the bathrooms conforming to their gender identities.

“The new guidance from the Obama administration on transgender youth in schools reaffirms a basic human right,” said Chirlane McCray, the wife of Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York City, which already has such a policy. “No child should face humiliation and embarrassment because of their gender identity, especially during such a private moment.”

In Fort Worth, a deep divide became evident after the school district adopted a similar policy, prompting impassioned speeches and demonstrations from both sides at a school board meeting.

At the same time, eight states filed a brief siding with North Carolina in its legal fight with the administration. And in Fannin County, Ga., a sparsely populated area bordering North Carolina and Tennessee, hundreds of people marched to a school board meeting to insist that the district stick to traditional, anatomical standards in defining sex.

Steve Fallin, a pastor who participated in the march, spoke of a rising anger among many Christians who feel they are not being treated with respect, a fury that intensified Friday with news of the president’s directive.

“What President Obama did with this letter, he just cranked up the heat on the pot just a few degrees too high,” Mr. Fallin said. “I can tell you from what I saw last night, most of rural America, particularly the South, is right ready to just boil over.”

Advocates on both sides said they suspect that most school districts did not have explicit policies defining gender. There are districts that allow transgender students to use the facilities that match their identities, and districts that prohibit it, but no definitive count of either group.

Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, argued that the administration was distorting a 1972 law requiring equal rights for women and girls in education, known as Title IX.

“The Obama administration has absolutely no legal authority to change what a statute means, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “And they have complete and utter disregard for students’ privacy and safety in these intimate settings.”

Tim Moore, the Republican speaker of the North Carolina House, said, “We all have to wonder what other threats to common sense norms may come before the sun sets on the Obama administration.”

Despite the federal directive and a civil rights complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union, the school district in Marion County, Fla., said it would not change its bathroom policy. “It’s just an overreaching federal government that didn’t follow the rules,” said Nancy Stacy, a board member. “They’re just bullying everybody.”

But transgender people and groups that advocate for them praised the administration’s action on Friday as a civil rights milestone.

Capri Culpepper, a transgender high school senior in Anderson, S.C., said the guidelines offered support to students like her, who can feel isolated and ostracized. She said school officials told her last year that she had to stop using the girl’s restroom because it was making people uncomfortable, and allowed her to use a staff bathroom or one in the nurse’s office.

“They were segregating me into this restroom that I didn’t feel like I belonged in,” she said.

Defenders of traditional gender norms say that changing them threatens the safety of women, allowing men claiming to be transgender women into women’s bathrooms. Transgender advocates say that fear is misplaced, and the far greater danger is to transgender people.

“When you make a transgender student use a bathroom that is separate from all the other boys and girls you send a clear signal to the student body and to teachers that that student is so different that they can be treated worse,” said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Jabari Lyles, president of a gay community center in Baltimore and the education manager for Baltimore’s chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, applauded the directive, but said it would be an uphill battle to put in place.

“Hopefully, what this doesn’t do is put transgender students more in danger because the law has taken a bold step on their side,” he said.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “This is a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people, sending a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools.”


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