President Trump’s revocation of federal protection for transgender students is a setback for the transgender community, but one that should worry all Americans.
In rescinding the guidance that said schools should allow transgender students to use the bathroom facilities aligned with their gender identity, Trump had the opportunity to refine that policy, to find a middle ground that nevertheless protected the safety of transgender individuals. On the campaign trail, he had promised the LGBTQ community that he would “fight for you,” even unfurling a rainbow flag at one event. But at the first opportunity to follow through, he whiffed.
There is a reason civil rights have been the purview of the federal government. States have made an unholy mess of it in the past. It was the feds who finally stepped in to put an end to the horrifying Jim Crow laws and ensure uniform voting rights.
A recent analysis of federal and state data put the number of transgender teens at about 150,000, with another 1.4 million transgender adults. Their right to safely use a bathroom should not depend on what state they live in. And yet the concerns of those grappling with fast-changing societal norms must be acknowledged, not derided. It is the responsibility and moral obligation of the federal government to navigate that delicate terrain and craft a middle ground that preserves safety. That is hard work, but it is the job Trump signed up for. To abandon vulnerable individuals — particularly children — who already suffer from cruel bullying and higher suicide rates is unconscionable.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reportedly expressed initial concerns about the shift, and when the policy was announced pointedly said that, “We have a responsibility to protect every student in America … . This is not a federal mandate but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate.” Unfortunately, by sending this issue back to the states the Trump administration is doing just that.
The Obama guidance letter moved too fast for some, attempting by fiat what should have been done through deliberation and inclusion. But without federal leadership, what’s left is a hodgepodge of laws in which civil rights can change just by crossing a state line.
Thankfully, Minnesota — first in the nation to legislatively approve same-sex marriage — has the additional protection of the state Human Rights Act and an antibullying law that covers gender identify. Gov. Mark Dayton has rightly said that protection for transgender students is not a “states’ rights” issue, but a human-rights issue deserving of constitutional protection “if the long-stated purpose of the United States Constitution is to protect a minority of people form oppression by some who are in the majority.”
Minnesota school districts now must develop their own policies. As they do so, we would urge them to look to those state laws. Minnesota has the opportunity to succeed where the federal government has failed, and to develop a compassionate model that acknowledges concerns, preserves safety and leads citizens toward greater equity.