Obama Administration Offers Support, Directive for Transgender Students

(Image: WikiMedia, Creative Commons)

(Image: WikiMedia, Creative Commons)

Today, the Obama administration directed schools to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive.

The action, which affects all public schools and universities that received federal funds, is one of the clearest statements of support for transgender rights made by the Obama administration. The Justice and Education departments put school officials on notice that they risk losing federal aid if they limit students to areas or teams based on their assigned gender at birth.

According to journalists at The Washington Post, the administration cited Title IX of the US Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sexual discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding, as legal justification for its actions. “As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students,” said a letter from the Justice Department.

Unsurprisingly, the move incited an intense backlash from Republican lawmakers and conservative education officials across the country. Some criticized the federal government for usurping the power of local communities and states to determine how to organize their schools, while others accused the administration of infringing on students’ religious and social convictions.

The Obama administration’s directive was prompted by a law passed in North Carolina that prohibits transgender people from using a public bathroom corresponding to the gender with which they identify. According to Eric Tucker of CBS, the governor of North Carolina, Republican Pat McCrory, defended the law a “commonsense privacy policy,” despite the torrent of criticism it has invited. The law is simply referred to as the “bathroom bill.” The law also blocks North Carolina cities from enacting their own anti-discrimination measures.

By contrast, the White House accused North Carolina of violating the rights of transgender people. Civil rights and liberal organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, a gay, lesbian, and transgender civil rights organization, celebrated the administration’s guidelines as “groundbreaking.”

“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,” HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement.

Still, the directive issued by the White House is not a direct legal threat to schools that may disagree. Rather, it makes clear that schools do have obligations to protect trans students, and they risk inviting scrutiny if such responsibilities are ignored.

The fight over transgender rights has become a nationwide conversation, taking place in living rooms, schoolyards, and courthouses. As reported by The Guardian, a federal appeals court in Virginia recently ruled that the barring of transgender boy from using the boys’ bathroom violated his constitutional rights. Meanwhile, school officials in Chicago and Oregon have outlined protections for trans students.