Last year, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance to schools about supporting transgender kids in schools under Title IX, which bars discrimination in educational activities. The guidance letter encouraged schools to uphold federal civil rights laws for all students, including transgender children, and it provided an essential roadmap for how to do it. Wednesday night, in a much anticipated blow to transgender rights, the Trump administration rescinded that guidance.
Withdrawing the guidance does not reverse the federal laws supporting anti-discrimination protections for transgender students under Title IX. But it does send a dangerous signal to our schools that it’s OK to ignore bullying and harassment based on gender identity; that it’s OK to exclude children from sports based their gender identity; that it’s OK to violate the privacy of children based on their gender identity; and that it’s OK to humiliate, endanger and dehumanize children based on their gender identity by denying them access to the bathroom that matches best with their declared gender.
We’ve seen the dark power of suggestion materialize under the Trump administration in rashes of hate crimes against communities of color, immigrants, Muslims and Jews, and we are terrified of this implied permission slip to ignore our children’s basic protections.
There are thousands of parents like me in America. We find each other on Facebook, at conferences, at the doctor’s office and on the playground. I have two young daughters. One has keen hand-eye coordination and athletic talent. One is acrobatic and a consummate performer. One dreams of being a painter. The other, a marine biologist. They are both adored by their teachers, neighbors and friends. They are both eager to help out at home and in the classroom. They both love to play dress-up and wrestle, and they both squeal with excitement when they are making something special for a loved one.
One of my daughters happens to be transgender. That is, she identifies with a gender different from the sex she was assigned at birth. The other is cisgender, meaning she identifies with the sex she was assigned at birth. But their real differences as sisters, as girls, derive from their distinct personalities, passions and capabilities, rather than from the body parts they use to pee.
The Trump administration’s act of aggression against trans kids comes at a noteworthy time. Last week, #StandWithGavin was the hashtag heard by upwards of 20 million people, when actress and transgender advocate Laverne Cox shouted it out at the 2017 Grammy Awards. America would learn that Gavin Grimm is a bright, gentle-natured, transgender high school senior who has been fighting against a Virginia school board to use the boys’ bathroom. On March 28, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear his landmark case.
If it were up to the Trump administration, protections for transgender students would be determined at the state level. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage signed a brief in support of the school board opposing Grimm. My child is not safe here if her rights are to be determined by a deeply unpopular and incendiary governor with a track record of transphobia and a blatant disregard for those most vulnerable in our state. My daughter’s civil rights are not a platform for debate by bigoted blowhards in state legislatures or anywhere else.
The bottom line is the Title IX guidance hurt no one, but it did prevent a lot of suffering. When denied access to the bathroom where they feel safe and affirmed, transgender kids often avoid using the bathroom at school, resulting in infections and other medical problems. Some avoid going to school altogether. Because of discrimination, transgender youth are more than three times as likely to contemplate suicide than their cisgender peers. Trans youth of color face even greater risks when racism and transphobia collide. Now the moral imperative for our schools to protect these fragile young lives has been dismissed.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Grimm case could carve a path for our children to flourish, or it could deepen the chasm over which we struggle to build a safety net for our vulnerable kids. Win or lose, Gavin Grimm has captured our attention and ignited our advocacy. America will #StandWithGavin, even if President Donald Trump won’t. And we won’t sit down until every transgender child in America has the unalienable right to do so safely and with dignity at school.
Emily Wedick is a Maine-born grant writer, essayist and equality activist who lives in South Portland with her husband and two daughters.