THE BUZZ: Gender Battle

By on May 17, 2016

Wyoming reacts to Washington mandate to accommodate and protect transgender students.

A universal transgender bathroom sign now represents a battle between the feds and states like Wyoming, where the governor and school superintendents are up in arms over a mandate focused on the rights of transgender students. (Photo: montana family foundation)

A universal transgender bathroom sign now represents a battle between the feds and states like Wyoming, where the governor and school superintendents are up in arms over a mandate focused on the rights of transgender students. (Photo: montana family foundation)

JACKSON HOLE, WY –  President Barack Obama’s parting shot before leaving the presidency may well be the appointment of a moderate liberal Supreme Court Justice. But before that he’s taking on an issue in schools that has provoked a flurry of protest: His administration’s directive on the use of school bathrooms by transgender students.

Last Friday’s joint letter from the Departments of Education and Justice (DOE, DOJ) further clarified Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting discrimination based on sex. To help public schools move the decades-old law into the modern age, the federal government explained that ascertaining gender isn’t as easy as checking a birth certificate or looking under the hood.

It’s more than bathrooms. “Schools must provide sex-segregated activities and facilities, and allow transgender students to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity,” reads the letter from DOE/DOJ. The letter was addressed to all schools that receive federal funding, including 16,500 school districts and 7,000 colleges, universities and trade schools. It also threatened the loss of federal funding should a state choose to not comply.

“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 E. Lynch said in a prepared statement. “This guidance gives administrators, teachers, and parents the tools they need to protect transgender students from peer harassment and to identify and address unjust school policies.”

Pushback has ranged from fear that pedophiles could exploit restroom facilities to the possibility that a tall, muscular, athletic boy identifying as a girl could take the girl’s basketball team all the way to state.

North Carolina’s House Bill 2 has that state embroiled in a standoff with the feds. The reaction in Texas to last week’s joint department mandate was predictably audacious. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised a fight, tweeting: “Obama can’t rewrite the Civil Rights Act. He’s not a king.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called the directive “social engineering” and objected to the use of what he said amounted to blackmail. One district superintendent said he threw the letter in the trash.

The ruling has pleased most in the LGBTQ community. Wyoming Equality, an advocacy group fighting for the rights of transgender people, as well as gays, lesbians and bisexuals, heralded it.

“The directive from the Obama administration was welcome and necessary. Personally, I cried tears I hadn’t even realized I was holding in when I read the news,” said Sara Burlingame, Wyoming Equality’s public education coordinator. “If more people were aware of what our transgender kids face every day—how physically unsafe, how unprotected and violating their experience is—I believe they would, as Jesus asked, ‘mourn with those that mourn.’”

How it plays in Wyoming

Wyoming has a long history of defiance. It began even before statehood, really. When Congress threatened to keep Wyoming from joining the Union in 1890 unless the fledgling territory rescinded its two-decade-old constitution allowing women the right to vote, the response back to Washington via telegram was short and sharp: “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women,” read the response from Wyoming delegates.

Wyoming prevailed in the standoff. Congress blinked and the Equality State became the 44th star on the flag.

More recently, Wyoming lawmakers have made numerous attempts to nullify Obama’s healthcare act and gun control measures. State officials have bristled at federal wildlife management of endangered species like grizzlies and wolves. And the governor’s office has taken every opportunity to blast DC feds with lawsuits—the state is involved in more than 30 to date—on numerous issues from wild horses to marijuana to fracking.

When the letter from DC arrived in the Cowboy State it was Wyoming’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow who fired the first return volley at Washington within hours of the official directive. While Balow is as yet admittedly unclear as to what legal ramifications the state might face in defying the federal mandate to public schools to prepare to accommodate transgender students, she is sure about one thing: she doesn’t like to be told what to do by federal agencies 2,000 miles removed from her classrooms.

“Public schools do need to be a place where it is safe for all students to learn. But we don’t think a sweeping federal mandate will help with that,” Balow told The Planet. “At this point, we’ve all lived with this information for less than 72 hours. For many of us it will take a little time to sink in. It’s a bit too early to speculate. One clear winner in all of this is attorneys [sic], because this is bound for the courts.”

Late Monday, the governor’s office weighed in as well. Gov. Matt Mead said in a press release that the state does not appreciate the veiled threat of withholding federal funding.

“The threat of losing federal funds does not sit well with us in Wyoming. Education is rightly controlled by our local school districts and they deal everyday with matters that affect student safety and privacy,” Mead said. “The Administration’s letter, which is flawed, includes deeply divisive analysis and policy guidance that is not helpful. We will continue to honor local control and we will resist this latest action by the Administration.”

Wyoming Equality was disappointed by a failed equality bill introduced in the 2014 Legislative session. They viewed it as a chance for Wyoming to step out of the shadows of the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder and emerge as a state truly interested in living up to its moniker.

“At Wyoming Equality, we’d love for legislators and educators to embrace the ethic that has always characterized our great state, namely: ‘We don’t care where you go pee, we care about your character,’” Burlingame said. “We have a severe energy and economic crisis in our state, it can and should demand our full attention. We should let other states engage in culture wars that revolve around checking people’s genitalia. We have real work to do.”

Whether it’s Common Core or No Child Left Behind, Balow insists education decisions are best left at the state level—district by district, school by school—as close to the desks of students as can be.

“Our districts are well ahead of this edict and as a state we need to defer to the districts. It’s a much better way to craft school policy,” Balow said. “This is not something that should be leveraged as a political game piece in any way. We have to keep it focused on the kids and the students.”

Albany County School District No. 1 superintendent Jubal Yennie told the Laramie Boomerang, “I think at the national [level] the sides are continuing to be drawn and the issue’s probably no longer about students … it’s about the national political scene trying to clean out their issues on this thing.”

In Jackson, Teton County School District No. 1 superintendent Dr. Gillian Chapman said her district is well ahead of the issue and she has not seen any indication intervention from Washington is necessary.

“We recognize that the state is considering this issue in light of the guidance from the federal government. Our board reviewed our policies in the fall and determined that our current policies were appropriate and reflect one of the board’s core values of respect for all,” Chapman said. “Building administrators and staff work closely with students and families to reasonably accommodate individual needs and will continue to do so.”

Still, Burlingame says issues have cropped up in Wyoming.

“A young trans woman at Central High [Cheyenne] posted on her Facebook wall:

‘The federal government most certainly has the authority to protect people’s rights. Accommodations given in Wyoming schools are humiliating, dehumanizing, and wrong. One of the things I’m most excited about with graduating is never being forced into the school faculty restrooms again. At UW, I can finally be treated as an equal among my peers. Separate but equal treatment is anything but equal. It’s shameful that our district, and state administrators, can’t recognize that,’” Burlingame relayed.

Balow has been in contact with the governor’s office and the state attorney general Peter Michael. She is confident Wyoming is handling its transgender students in a respectable way.

“This does take the focus off what I think is most important, which is our kids,” Balow said. “We have a number of schools that have adapted and accommodated transgender kids in a welcoming and appropriate way. This doesn’t change that, and hopefully doesn’t make it worse by shining a spotlight on it. It certainly doesn’t make it better.”

Mead is also hopeful the Equality State will lead the way, its own way, toward education issues in the 21st Century. “I have confidence Wyoming schools will find a way forward that is respectful of all students,” he said. PJH

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