Trump Overturns Landmark Guidelines Defending Transgender Student Rights

Transgender bathroom sign
Gender neutral signs in restrooms in Durham, North Carolina, May 10, 2016. Schools in South Australia must now permit transgender pupils to choose pronouns and use bathrooms they feel most comfortable with. Sara Davis/Getty

President Donald Trump's administration on Wednesday revoked landmark guidance issued to public schools in defense of transgender student rights, reversing course on a signature initiative of former Democratic President Barack Obama.

Obama instructed public schools in May 2016 to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms matching their chosen gender identity, threatening to withhold federal funding if they should force transgender children to use bathrooms against their will.

Trump, a Republican who took office last month, rescinded those guidelines, even though they had been put on hold by a federal judge, arguing that states and public schools should have the authority to make their own decisions without federal government interference.

The Justice and Education departments will continue to study the legal issues involved, according to the new, superseding guidance that will be sent to public schools across the country.

Reversing the Obama guidelines stands to inflame passions in the latest conflict in America between believers in traditional values and social progressives, and is likely to prompt more of the street protests that followed Trump's Nov. 8 election.

A couple hundred people gathered in front of the White House to protest the Republican president's action, waving rainbow flags and chanting: "No hate, no fear, trans students are welcome here." The rainbow flag is the symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"This is a mean-spirited attack on hundreds of thousands of students who simply want to be their true selves and be treated with dignity while attending school," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement.

Conservatives such as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who spearheaded the lawsuit challenging the Obama guidance, hailed the Trump administration action.

"Our fight over the bathroom directive has always been about former President Obama's attempt to bypass Congress and rewrite the laws to fit his political agenda for radical social change," Paxton, a Republican, said.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the White House was pressed to act now because of the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, G.G. versus Gloucester County School Board.

That case pits a Virginia transgender boy, Gavin Grimm, against officials who want to deny him use of the boys' room at his high school.

Although the Justice Department is not a party in the case, it typically would want to make its views heard. The Trump administration action on Wednesday also withdrew an Education Department letter in support of Grimm's case.

Courts Could Have Final Say

The federal law in question, known as Title IX, bans sex discrimination in education. But it remains unsettled whether Title IX protections extend to a person's gender identity.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the Obama guidelines "did not contain sufficient legal analysis or explain how the interpretation was consistent with the language of Title IX."

The courts are likely to have the final say over whether Title IX covers transgender students. The Supreme Court could pass on that question in the Virginia case and allow lower courts to weigh in, or go ahead and decide what the law means.

Transgender legal advocates have criticized the "states' rights" argument, saying federal law and civil rights are matters for the federal government to enforce, not the states.

Obama's Education Department undertook the guidance in response to queries from school districts across the country about how to accommodate transgender students in gender-segregated bathrooms.

The Obama administration guidance also covered a host of other issues, such as the importance of addressing transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns and schools' responsibility to prevent harassment and bullying of transgender children.

Thirteen states led by Texas sued to stop the Obama guidelines, calling them federal meddling in what should be a state matter, and a U.S. district judge in Texas temporarily halted their full implementation.

That lawsuit could be rendered moot by the new policy, which also allows public schools to set their own rules without fear of losing federal funds or a lawsuit from the Justice Department.

The White House previously boasted of Trump's support for LGBT rights, noting in a Jan. 31 statement that he was the first Republican presidential nominee to mention the community in his nomination acceptance speech.

"Revoking the guidance shows that the president's promise to protect LGBT rights was just empty rhetoric," James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT project, said in a statement.

Trump Overturns Landmark Guidelines Defending Transgender Student Rights | U.S.