The ongoing state-by-state debate over bathroom accommodations for transgender students has riled Americans from coast to coast. States have divided over the issue, with some supporting accommodations for transgender students and others demanding students use bathrooms based on the sex listed on their birth certificates.
Just this week, the U.S. Department of Justice put North Carolina officials on notice, saying a new state law violates Title IX protections against gender discrimination in education. The DOJ also noted North Carolina was at risk of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a section that guides workplace discrimination. Millions of dollars of federal funding is at stake if the state is found to be in violation of students’ and employees’ rights.
North Carolina isn’t alone. Politicians in Tennessee, South Carolina, West Virginia, Arizona, Mississippi and Maine have indicated they believe transgender people deserve no protections under Title IX’s restrictions on discrimination on the basis of sex.
Over the last few years, school systems and states have landed on both sides of the issue, and sometimes, communities have been divided. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign have called the sentiment in America a “surge,” stating anti-transgender policies aim to “fear-monger.”
“In 2015, at least 21 transgender people were victims of fatal violence in the United States — more killings of transgender people than any other year on record,” HRC noted in a recent bulletin tracking the advance of anti-transgender legislation. “Until this year, 2015 had the largest quantity of anti-LGBT and specifically anti-transgender bills state legislatures had ever seen.”
In some districts, like Lincoln (Nebraska) Public Schools, leaders are making pointed efforts to buck the trend. There, Superintendent Steve Joel, sparked debate when he suggested educators refer to students in gender-neutral terms. Joel’s suggestion? "Campers" or "purple penguins." Reaction was swift, and the national media poked fun at Joel. Joel, however, was unfazed.
“We are telling our staff to be sensitive to the needs of all students, and those with gender identity issues are particularly vulnerable to bullying and suicide,” he said in a press conference.
In June 2015, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network released research showing the majority of schools lack policies that explicitly ban the bullying of LGBT students. According to the report, 30% of schools even lacked general anti-bullying policy at all.
Two years earlier, the group's National School Climate Survey found more than one in three LGBT students reported physical assaults, and an additional third reported missing or skipping school due to safety concerns.
Data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey was used in a March 2016 study drawing a correlation between the high suicide rates of transgender teens with bathroom restriction policies.
Last July, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) tried to bring attention to LGBT student protection at the federal level. Franken’s goal was the inclusion of a clause known as "the Student Non-Discrimination Act" within the Every Child Achieves Act. The Student Non-Discrimination Act was supposed to prohibit harassment and bullying of LGBT students, but it was never adopted.
Franken has introduced similar legislation for every year since 2010.
Other states, like Wisconsin and Illinois, are also home to schools that have tried to advance anti-discrimination efforts for their transgender students. The Janesville School Board in Wisconsin and th Chicago (IL) Public School District have instituted bathroom policies mandating trans students may use restrooms that correspond to the gender with which they identify.
In Janesville schools, however, the policy comes with one caveat: students need a note of permission from their parents approved by the school’s principal. And in Chicago PS, the move was quickly contested by parents from Illinois Township High School District 211 in nearby Palatine. A group filed a suit against both CPS and the U.S. Department of Education in an attempt to walk back the new protections.
But Wisconsin’s Green Bay School District and Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools have embraced communication and transparency. There, dedicated gay-straight alliance groups are established at younger grade levels. Guidance was also created as a framework for schools around how transgender students participate in sports, and how transgender issues are spoken about and included in classroom instruction.
The federal government has formally directed school districts to treat students according to the gender identify they choose for themselves, regardless of what was listed on birth certificates, opening the door for districts to embrace progressive approaches. Yet some locales seem to be ignoring the mandate, moving instead in the opposite direction.
South Dakota’s legislature approved a bill this February that defies federal law, ordering transgender students to use bathrooms according to their "chromosomes and anatomy" at birth. Twenty-two other states are now poised to consider similar legislation.
Some states like Kentucky, tried to be more inclusive, but saw efforts stall due to outrage from some parents and interest groups. In 2014, Louisville’s Atherton High School decided to allow transgendered students to use bathrooms and locker rooms correlating with their identified gender. The move ignited a fiery debate, and resulted in an appeal being filed by the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom.
The appeal described the decision as “inconsistent with state and federal law, inconsistent with concerns for safety and inconsistent with concerns for liability." In March 2015, the Kentucky Senate passed Republican-backed legislation overriding the previous decision, the Courier-Journal reported, saying students had to use restrooms corresponding with their sex at birth.
And in New York City, Jared Fox was appointed to serve the New York City Public School System in a new, unprecedented role beginning Fall 2015: as a school-based LBGT liaison. Some of his goals include launching a program that brings LGBT authors into classrooms to discuss books and analyzing the feasibility of gender-neutral bathrooms for schools.
With a heightened attention to civil rights issues tied to threats to pull federal funding, and an increased number of complaints being filed to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the issue will likely continue to gain traction amid controversy.