The Trump administration on Wednesday ended federal protection for transgender students that allowed them to use public school bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities.
Stepping into an emotional national debate, the administration came down on the side of states’ rights, lifting federal guidelines that had been issued by the Obama administration and characterized by Republicans as a legal overreach.
Without the Obama directive, it will be up to states and school districts to interpret federal anti-discrimination law and determine whether students should have access to restrooms in accordance with their expressed gender identity and not just their biological sex.
The decision, however, drew immediate criticism from those who advocated for the protection.
“This lamentable decision can lead to hostile treatment of transgender students and studies have shown that bullying and harassment can be detrimental to the emotional and physical well-being of teenagers,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a news release.
Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congressional member who has a transgender son, added: “Evidence has shown that acceptance of transgender students lowers their risk of suicide.”
But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the decision should not be in the hands of the federal government.
“This is an issue best solved at the state and local level,” DeVos said. “Schools, communities and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students.”
Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE, Miami-Dade’s leading LGBTQ rights group, told the Miami Herald the decision to end the federal protections for transgender students was a “betrayal.”
“The president made waves as the first Republican presidential candidate to promise to work for LGBTQ Americans — and that makes today’s betrayal all the more disappointing,” said Lima. “With its guidance to schools today, the Trump administration is sending a message to transgender kids that the president of the United States doesn’t have their backs.”
In a letter to the nation’s schools, the Justice and Education departments said the guidance “has given rise to significant litigation regarding school restrooms and locker rooms.”
The agencies withdrew the guidance to “in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.”
Anti-bullying safeguards would not be affected by the change, according to the letter. “All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment,” it said.
It was not clear what immediate impact the change would have on schools, as a federal judge in Texas put a temporary hold on the Obama guidance soon after it was issued — after 13 states sued.
Even without that hold, the guidance carried no force of law. But transgender rights advocates say it protected students from discrimination. Opponents argued it was federal overreach and violated the safety and privacy of other students.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump “has made it clear throughout the campaign that he is a firm believer in states’ rights and that certain issues like this are not best dealt with at the federal level.”
Conservative activists hailed the change, saying the Obama directives were illegal and violated the rights of fixed-gender students, especially girls who did not feel safe changing clothes or using restrooms next to anatomical males.
“Our daughters should never be forced to share private, intimate spaces with male classmates, even if those young men are struggling with these issues,” said Vicki Wilson, a member of Students and Parents for Privacy. “It violates their right to privacy and harms their dignity.”
However, the reversal is a setback for transgender rights groups, which had been urging Trump to keep the guidelines in place.
“This is a deeply disappointing and alarming action from the Trump administration that demonstrates their willingness to endanger some of our country’s most vulnerable children,” Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ rights group, told the Miami Herald. “We know that transgender students in Florida experience more bullying, harassment and danger than any other group and today their president put an even bigger target on their back.”
Advocates say federal law will still prohibit discrimination against students based on their gender or sexual orientation.
Still, they say lifting the Obama directive puts children in harm’s way.
“Reversing this guidance tells trans kids that it’s OK with the Trump administration and the Department of Education for them to be abused and harassed at school for being trans,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
In South Florida, advocates worried about the impact this would have on the health of transgender students.
“Our children are our children no matter what gender identity they have,” Aryah Lester, founder and director of Trans Miami, Miami-Dade’s first transgender-led organization, said. “As Americans, we have always championed protections for our children. With high rates of teen suicide, especially in the LGBT community, it is appalling that protections for children in schools are being taken away by our federal government.”
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Spicer denied media reports that DeVos, who has been criticized for her stance on LGBT issues, had opposed the change but was overruled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Spicer said any disagreement was merely over wording and timing.
“There is no daylight between anybody,” Spicer said, adding that DeVos was “100 percent” on board with the decision.
The Obama administration’s guidance was based on its determination that Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, also applies to gender identity.
The guidance did not sufficiently explain its interpretation of that law, Sessions said in a statement.
Legal experts said the change in position could impact pending court cases involving the federal sex discrimination law, including a case to be heard by the Supreme Court in March involving Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen who was denied bathroom access in Virginia.
The justices could decide not to hear the case and direct lower courts to decide that issue.
In a phone interview with the AP, Grimm said of the Trump action: “It’s not positive. It has the possibility of hurting transgender students and transgender people. We’re going to keep fighting like we have been and keep fighting for the right thing.”
Fifteen states have explicit protections for transgender students in their state laws, and many individual school districts in other states have adopted policies that cover such students, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. Just one state, North Carolina, has enacted a law restricting access to bathrooms in government-owned buildings to the sex that appears on a person’s birth certificate. Lawmakers in more than 10 states are considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Miami Herald reporter Steve Rothaus contributed to this report.