WASHINGTON (AP) — Public schools must permit transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity, according to an Obama administration directive issued amid a court fight between the federal government and North Carolina.
The guidance from leaders at the departments of Education and Justice says public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.
“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, which is being sent to school districts Friday.
In issuing the guidance, the Obama administration is wading anew into a socially divisive debate it has bluntly cast in terms of civil rights. The Justice Department on Monday sued North Carolina over a bathroom access law that it said violates the rights of transgender people, a measure that Lynch likened to policies of racial segregation and efforts to deny gay couples the right to marry.
The guidance does not impose any new legal requirements. But officials say it’s meant to clarify expectations of school districts that receive funding from the federal government. Educators have been seeking guidance on how to comply with Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding, Education Secretary John B. King said in a statement.
“We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence,” King said.
Under the guidance, schools are told that they must treat transgender students according to their chosen gender identity as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that that identity “differs from previous representations or records.” There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect his or her gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even in instances when it makes others uncomfortable, according to the directive.
“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,” the guidance says.
The administration is also releasing a separate 25-page document of questions and answers about best practices, including ways schools can make transgender students comfortable in the classroom and protect the privacy rights of all students in restrooms or locker rooms.
As the battle over House Bill 2 continues in North Carolina, a group of physicians and medical students brought a petition to the State Capitol Building Friday, urging repeal of the controversial measure.
The petition included signatures from 710 students and professionals in the health care field. They cited a variety of concerns with HB2, including its impact on people’s mental health.
“Particularly, the transgender population of the state. They already deal with a lot of psychological stress and discrimination. And, this bill just really endorses that at a state level,” said Margo Faulk, a medical student at UNC and board member of the local chapter of the American Medical Student Association.
Karan Ahluwalia, another board member, is gender non-conforming and prefers to be referred to by the pronouns “they” and “them.”
“You don’t have to understand why someone wants to use they/them pronouns. Just respect that this is something that is a painful thing for them, something that they wish for you to respect so that the way they see themselves is seen by the rest of the world,” Ahluwalia said. “It doesn’t really just come down to bathrooms. It just comes down to will you let me live my gender and the way I understand myself, or will you discriminate against it?”
The move was cheered by Human Rights Campaign, a gay, lesbian and transgender civil rights organization, which called the guidelines “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.
The guidance comes days after the Justice Department and North Carolina filed dueling lawsuits over a new state law that says transgender people must use public bathrooms, showers and changing rooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. The administration has said the law violates the Civil Rights Act.
Governor Pat McCrory released the following statement regarding the Obama administration’s mandate on public schools:
President Obama’s administration has instituted federally mandated edicts that affect employees as well as every parent and child within a public school system. This national bathroom, locker room and shower policy for almost every business, university and now K-12 school in our country changes generations of gender etiquette and privacy norms which parents, children and employees have expected in the most personal and private settings of their everyday lives.
“Most Americans, including this governor, believe that government is searching for a solution to a problem that has yet to be defined.
“Now, both the federal courts and the U.S. Congress must intercede to stop this massive executive branch overreach, which clearly oversteps constitutional authority.
“Both non-discrimination and privacy are basic tenets of our great country. States and local governments cannot have a myriad of different laws which cause confusion and inconsistent application.
“However, the executive branch of the federal government does not have the authority to be the final arbiter. We all must work together to seek answers and common sense clarification.”