What the new Trump guidance means for trans youth

  • Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Yesterday the Trump administration made it official: it is backing away from protecting the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming youth to fair treatment in America’s schools.  Officials from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, under the new leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, issued a joint letter that reverses legal guidance by the Obama administration last May, which, among other points, explained that a school engages in discrimination when denying transgender students access to school facilities, including , that correspond to their gender rather than the sex that had been assigned to them at birth.

It’s important to note that no law has been changed.  We still have Title IX in place, which was enacted in 1972 to ensure that no individual should be “excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance" on the basis of sex. Nor have the many court and agency rulings that clearly and plainly explain that sex includes gender, and includes gender identity.

What has changed is that with this ‘guidance’ by the Department of Justice - the highest law enforcement agency in the land - the federal government will ignore Title IX and allow schools to discriminate. Whereas Justice Department officials in the Obama administration had clearly stated last year their interpretation as including and protecting the rights of trans students, Wednesday’s announcement leaves interpretation of this law, and policies around transgender students in schools, in the hands of state and local authorities across the U.S. As we saw in North Carolina with HB 2 last year, that’s a dangerous prospect for adults, and even more so for children and adolescents who are navigating their individual paths to adulthood.   

This represents a significant change symbolically, and also practically.  It sends a message that for this administration, the rights, the health, and the safety of transgender youth are valued less, if at all.  And while this letter does not remove existing protections for trans students in districts such as Philadelphia School District, which has strong identity-affirming policies in place, it leaves students across the U.S. at greater risk, and leaves them and their parents to fend for themselves when seeking fair treatment and legal protection.

The officials who made this decision defend it on the basis of a "states' rights" argument, claiming that state and local school officials should be free to determine their own policies in this area – in essence, granting those schools a free federal license to discriminate.  On this point, Mazzoni Center, like the National Center for Transgender Equality, Lambda Legal, Transgender Law Center, GLAAD, and countless other transgender, LGBTQ, and other civil rights advocacy organizations, wholeheartedly disagree.  Like federal laws barring race discrimination – which once also sought license under the guise of “states’ rights” – gender discrimination is a federal promise and guarantee.  If states had the “right” to ignore federal law, there would be no federal rights.

This is a both a moral and a legal issue.  It is well-documented, with growing and tragic evidence, that transgender youth face a high risk of negative mental health outcomes - including depression, anxiety, and attempted suicide.

Just as importantly, there is also a growing body of research demonstrating that there are positive impacts on mental health for transgender youth who are supported in the social aspects of their transition (for example, having their chosen name respected, being able to dress and groom according to their gender identity, not being denied access to facilities, including restrooms designated for their identified gender, referred to by correct gender pronouns, etc.).

Transgender students and their families, supported by medical, mental health, and legal professionals, have been working on these issues for years. There is absolutely and indisputably a professional, evidence-based consensus on what kinds of policies and protections lead to better health and wellbeing for young people who are trans or gender nonconforming. 

This is about protecting youth, and a population that is well-documented as being especially vulnerable.  This new “Dear Colleague” letter from the DOJ and DOE sends a dangerous and harmful message to transgender youth, and to the adults charged with educating them, across the United States: that their own identity itself is subject to second-guessing based on someone else’s interpretation – specifically, by school or government officials – and that it that stranger’s beliefs are more important than their own when it comes to physical and emotional safety.

We cannot and will not turn our backs on these young people, who are every bit as deserving of a safe and affirming educational environment as any other student in their schools – and in great need of that safety.  

 

More on this story:

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