Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network (GSA Network) is heartened by the clear, unequivocal support the Obama Administration—via the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Civil Rights—has shown to transgender students in US public schools. With both this “Dear Colleague” letter today and Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s announcement of a DOJ lawsuit against North Carolina regarding House Bill 2 earlier this week, we have seen an unprecedented level of solidarity and support for trans individuals by the Obama Administration.
This is a huge step in the right direction toward ensuring trans students have access to a quality education by fostering a supportive educational environment. It extends to public school students across the U.S. the rights which GSA Network youth leaders fought for and secured in California with the passage of the School Success and Opportunities Act in 2013.
Over the last few months, as anti-trans legislation has targeted transgender individuals, it is transgender youth—who are required, by law, to use public facilities for most of the day—that have been caught in the crosshairs of public discourse. The school and social climates for trans and gender-nonconforming youth have grown increasingly hostile and violent. With this letter, the Administration is giving public schools an ultimatum: support trans students’ gender identities in school with regard to sex-segregated facilities and activities or face a lawsuit from the DOE and DOJ. This letter provides visible, vocal, and vital public support of trans students who can now see the federal government stands with them and will stand up for their rights in schools.
Beyond the issues of facilities and activities, the letter and the associated guidance document tells schools that they must respect trans students’ privacy by using the correct pronouns and names consistent with their gender identity, and may not “out” them to their peers or families. Critically, for gender non-conforming individuals, the letter states that “a school may not discipline students or exclude them from participating in activities for appearing or behaving in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity or that does not conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
While this guidance marks a historic moment for transgender students in this country in securing unhindered access to education, the implementation relies on adults following the guidance. GSA Network will continue our work to support trans, queer, and allied youth leaders in transforming their schools and holding their schools accountable.
Of particular concern to GSA Network and our youth leaders are the folks who are left behind when advocacy efforts are isolated to gender-conforming identities. As we saw with the Obergefell decision last summer, big victories can often lead to our allies thinking that we’ve done “enough.” As an organization led by queer and trans people of color, we at GSA Network know that the fight isn’t over until we’ve secured victories for our most marginalized and adversely impacted communities. We recently evolved our name to become a more inclusive and representative organization for the youth that we work alongside with and to reflect the work we’re doing to center the voices of trans and queer youth in the fight for racial and gender justice. We have seen great successes in youth organizing, most recently highlighted by the student advocacy at the Santee Educational Complex where students recently campaigned for and won a multi-stall gender-neutral restroom in their high school—a solution that accommodates all gender identities, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum between male and female.
We are reminded of the linkages that Attorney General Lynch brought up in her remarks, that the denial of the autonomy to control one’s most basic human functions has been historically used to deny the most basic humanity and dignity of people throughout our history. At GSA Network, we will continue to work with youth leaders to press for policy solutions that will meet the needs of non-binary, agender and gender-nonconforming youth for whom sex/gender segregated facilities continue to pose a challenge.
Geoffrey Winder and Ginna Brelsford
Co-Executive Directors, GSA Network