Of Bathrooms and Water Fountains
Over the course of the first few “ho-hum,” mundane months of Donald Trump’s presidency, one Executive Action withdrew protections for transgender students in public schools to use the bathroom that coincides with their gender identity. Barack Obama tied his Executive Action to Title IX. Trump’s action followed joint decisions by the Justice and Education Departments to make this issue a States’ issue, rather than a Federal one.
In a letter released to the press, Betsy DeVos wrote, “We have a responsibility to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment. This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate. At my direction, the Department's Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying, and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools.
“The guidance issued by the previous administration has given rise to several legal questions. As a result, a federal court in August 2016 issued a nationwide injunction barring the Department from enforcing a portion of its application. Since that time, the Department has not enforced that part of the guidance, thus there is no immediate impact to students by rescinding this guidance. 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.”
Taken at face value, Sessions, DeVos and Trump are doing their best to protect transgender students across the nation. However, closer scrutiny will reveal that they are actually chipping away at the statutes that are needed to provide safety and security for those who are “most vulnerable in our schools.” In fact, Ms. DeVos initially resisted this change, and informed Sessions that she would not sign off on it. Once Sessions shared his concerns with the President, DT had a heart-to-heart with DeVos, and the reversal was enacted.
Making this issue one of States’ rights seems to be a reliable strategy for this current administration. There is such wide division across our country that states with Republican-controlled legislatures are more likely to take similar action. Plenty agree with Trump’s action. Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, stated, “The federal government has absolutely no right to strip parents and local schools of their rights to provide a safe learning environment for children.” Of course, the “safe learning environment” that Perkins envisions is one in which all children use the bathrooms that coincide with their birth gender. The unfounded and irrational fear of sexual predatory behavior drives the religious right in their insistence that everyone obey the male/female profiles on bathroom doors.
The reaction from the transgender community has been swift and anticipated. Caitlyn Jenner heavily criticized Trump for his action. This was personal for her, in light of his campaign pledge where she would be welcome to use the women’s bathroom at any Trump Tower. Jackie Evancho, the 16-year-old who sang the National Anthem at Trump’s inauguration, hopes to meet with the President so she can convince him of the need for federal protections of transgender students. Evancho’s older sister Juliet is trans-female, and has had various struggles at her local public high school. In an interesting twist of legal proceedings by a federal judge, Juliet Evancho recently won a lawsuit against her high school, now allowing her to use the bathroom that corresponds with her gender identity.
Tara Sheldon, a Rehoboth Beach mother of a delightful young trans-daughter, wrote a letter to Cape Henlopen School District officials. It reads, “In light of the devastating and dangerous 'guidance' recently imposed, I am writing to request Cape Henlopen take a stand and publicly commit to protecting our LGBTQ youth. It is imperative we continue to move forward in ensuring equal access to education in a safe and supportive environment for all. Lives of children depend on it. Period. ALL children deserve to learn in an environment free from fear, ridicule, and intimidation. Remaining silent only serves to condone discrimination and hate—both of which lead to increased anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts in those targeted. Now more than ever we rely on leaders in our community to speak for those less powerful and less privileged. You are the voice of our children. We need to hear from you.”
Tara’s words underscore the same concerns and admonitions of a Houston, Texas mother. A Republican and conservative Christian, she addressed her school officials and community concerning protection of transgender children, including her own. “In the bathroom debate,” we are told, “she sees parallels to the civil rights movement, where public safety concerns were used to mask a broader bigotry.” Her strategy is to make frequent contact with her school officials. “Call your school board members. Call your superintendent. Call them, call them, call them. These are people [who] are elected, so just continue to call them and let them hear. Whether they agree or not isn’t even the point…I can’t just stop because my child is 6 and I’m fighting for her now so that when she’s 13 or 20 or 50 or 75 years old, hopefully I’ve done enough…that there’s been change.”
A meme that has hit social media states, “It’s not about bathrooms…as it was never about water fountains.” While we must use some caution in drawing parallels between the civil rights struggles of African-Americans and those of the transgender community, this image does have some credibility. The real issue at the heart of the current conversation is the fear and transphobic projections of uninformed people. It’s not about bathrooms!