BY ZACK FORD | Last week the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) told the country’s schools that they should be making sure transgender students have equal access to all educational opportunities, including using facilities that match their gender identities. If they don’t, they put themselves at risk of losing federal funding.
While the debate continues to play out in North Carolina in the courts, the response nationwide, particularly among Republican governors, was not pretty.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) called the guidance an “absurd federal overreach into a local issue.” President Obama, he said, is “intentionally dividing America” over an issue that he believes should be determined by individual school boards. Bevin’s administration is “researching the options available” to find ways for local jurisdictions to discriminate against transgender students if they so desire.
Bevin’s objection was supported by both Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers (R) and House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover (R). Stivers claimed that the guidance illustrates “just how out of touch” Obama’s administration has been “with the values of Kentucky,” and Hoover promised to “consider every measure to ensure it is challenged in Kentucky.
In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert (R) similarly decried what he called “one of the most egregious examples of federal overreach I have ever witnessed.” He promised that “if we have to fight this order, we will not hesitate to do so.”
Members of the state Board of Education agreed, such as Stan Lockhart, who said, “While it’s important to look after the rights of the minority, it’s also important to look after the rights of the majority.” Lockhart even said that he’d be willing to abandon federal funding for the state’s schools “if we can’t find any other way to create a safe environment for our kids.”
The Board has told Utah’s schools that they “are not required or expected to take any action” in response to what the Obama administration issued Friday, but will release more guidance soon.
Though Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) has been quiet since Friday, Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) was anything but. Before the day was over, he had sent a letter to the DOJ and DOE objecting to the guidance for transgender students. Like other conservative leaders, he complained about what he saw as federal overreach, but he also laid out his specific objections to the content of the guidance:
Further, you have forced this definition on parents, students, and communities because you have deemed unjustifiable any discomfort that they may express. Your determination thus elevates the status of transgender students over those who would define their sex based on biology and who would seek to have their definition honored in the most private of places. Indeed, those latter students and their families cannot even seek reassurance that a transgender student’s self-definition is not premised on whim or caprice because you have disavowed the school’s ability to seek any form of documentation regarding the transgender child’s self-definition.
Across Oklahoma, numerous school leaders explained their current policies while the state’smembers of Congress attacked the Obama administration. Among them was Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), who insisted that he has “a big problem with the federal government telling me that male students are allowed to use the bathroom with my three young girls.”
Thirty-two state lawmakers in Louisiana — all Republican — are calling on Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) to respond to the transgender guidance with a legal opinion explaining whether the guidance is a federal overreach and if the state should pursue a legal challenge.
Claiming that they “strongly believe that every person deserves respect and dignity as a human being,” the lawmakers also insist, “we believe that keeping the sexes separate for the purposes of bathroom and locker room access, for example, is important for the privacy and safety of the children and adults of our state.”
They also used their letter as an opportunity to express their concerns with an executive order issued last month by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) which protects LGBT employees of the state and state contractors from discrimination. They specifically want Landry, who has already clashed with Edwards since his election in January, to clarify what “gender identity” means and whether the governor’s order requires all state bathrooms to accommodate transgender people.
Meanwhile, Jim Garvey (R), president of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, also blasted the decision as overreach. “If Congress now wants to get the federal government involved in our local schools’ bathroom issues, it could pass an amendment to that legislation that would include such language,” he said.
The Idaho State Board of Education said that it “certainly wants to make sure that every student feels safe and welcome on our campuses across the state whether they are elementary schools, junior high, high school, or colleges or universities.” But the head of the state’s education department doesn’t think the Obama administration’s guidance is the way to do it.
Idaho Superintendent of Public Education Sherri Ybarra (R) called it “another example of an extreme top-down approach that won’t change day-to-day bathroom use.” Instead, she explained, “Idaho schools and communities know their students best, and know that each individual students’ needs are unique.”
Gov. Butch Otter (R) and Lt. Gov. Brad Little were more explicit in their objections. Little claimed, “the President is stretching the true meaning of the gender equality law,” while Otter outright accused him of orchestrating an “offensive attempt at social engineering” that “only harms our children.” Otter also hinted at the possibility of a legal challenge.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who recently signed a broad anti-LGBT bill into law, took to Facebook to attack the Obama administration. “Because these decisions are better left to the states, and not made at the point of a federal bayonet,” he wrote, “Mississippi’s public schools should not participate in the president’s social experiment.”
As many other lawmakers have done, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves played the father-of-daughters card. “As the father of three young daughters, I am deeply disturbed by the direction this administration is trying to push our society,” he wrote on Facebook. “Please pray for our country.”
Nevertheless, the Mississippi Department of Education said in no uncertain terms that it will actually adhere to the DOJ/DOE guidance. “A safe and caring school environment is critical to a student’s ability to learn and achieve,” the Department said in a statement.
Update: On Wednesday May 16, 2016 the Department reversed, saying it would “follow the lead of state leadership” and take no immediate action.
Officials in Michigan had already been debating trans student issues after the State Board of Education had unveiled draft guidance for protecting LGBT students from discrimination. Some lawmakers are already considering legislation similar to North Carolina’s HB2 that would overrule such protections. Friday’s guidance only added to the polarization already underway.
Various state lawmakers spoke out against the guidelines, such as Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R), who said, “Our local school districts should ignore them. They have no standing whatsoever.”
Congressman Bill Huizenga (R-MI) also lashed out Friday, suggesting, “Gender identity is a deeply personal issue and decisions regarding its interpretation or definition by the federal government need to be made by the American people and their elected representatives, not through executive fiat by bureaucrats within the Obama Administration.”
Gov. Rick Snyder (R) was noticeably silent.
Officials in Arkansas offered one of the most incendiary responses to the guidance on Friday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) issued a statement calling it “offensive, intrusive and totally lacking in common sense” and insisting that “there is no recognizable problem in Arkansas on this issue.”
Disproving his own point, he went on to say, “As Governor, I recommend that local school districts disregard the latest attempt at social engineering by the federal government and continue to use common sense to ensure a safe and healthy environment in Arkansas schools.”
Lt. Gov Tim Griffin (R) also chimed in on social media, thanking Hutchinson for his statement and calling the guidance “ridiculous and misguided.” Attorney General Leslie Rutledge agreed, accusing the federal agencies of “bullying and blackmail tactics” that raise “serious safety concerns for students and parents.” Like other attorneys general, she suggested her openness to taking legal action “to keep our students safe.”
The Arkansas Department of Education’s only comment was that it “fully supports Governor Hutchinson’s recommendation as outlined in his statement.”
The Texas Republican Convention this weekend provided the opportunity for almost every speakerto reference bathrooms and mock transgender people. Likewise, the Party ended up approving a platform with numerous references to opposing equal access to facilities for transgender people. “Now, just so you’re not confused,” Lt. Gov Dan Patrick (R) joked, “when you go to the restroom, the M doesn’t stand for make up your mind, and the W does not stand for ‘whatever.’”
If that weren’t enough, Patrick did a whole media tour this weekend decrying the guidance. His most notable appearance was on Fox News with Megyn Kelly, where the host actually grilled him and ultimately cut him off as he continued to espouse anti-transgender sentiments, claiming it’s going to be “chaos” when there are “seven-year-old children co-mixing in the bathroom.”
Kelly challenged Patrick’s attempts to conflate transgender people with child molesters pointing out, “A lot of sex offenders are men who molest men, who molest boys. Why is there an assumption that they need to sneak into the girls’ room?” Patrick tried to push back, saying, “Megyn, you’re missing this,” to which she replied, “I don’t think I’m missing anything.”
Patrick has said that he will instruct superintendents across Texas to disregard the guidance. Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) also said in a statement, “If President Obama thinks he can bully Texas schools into allowing men to have open access to girls in bathrooms, he better prepare for yet another legal fight.”
Failed presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who just last week was still entertaining the idea of reentering the race, jumped at the opportunity to continue the anti-trans crusade that defined the last leg of his campaign.
Picking up the theme at the Texas Republican Convention, he told the crowd Saturday, “The president issued a decree to every public school in America demanding that they change their bathroom policies, demanding that every public school now allow grown men and boys into little girls’ bathrooms. We have entered the world of politically correct lunacy.”
Alabama officials may be scrambling the quickest to respond to the guidance. On Friday, Attorney General Luther Strange (R) issued a statement decrying the guidance and warning, “If the Obama Administration tries to enforce this absurd edict, I will work with other Attorneys General to challenge it.”
The Alabama State Board of Education is also prepping resistance. South Alabama’s representative to the Board, Matthew Brown, is proposing a resolution that will require all public school students in the state to use bathrooms and locker rooms “corresponding to that students’ biological sex” as designated on their birth certificates. In other words, it will enforce a rule identical to the relevant provision of North Carolina’s HB2. State Sen. Phil Williams (R) has similarly proposed introducing legislation to the same effect.
Though Gov. Robert Bentley (R) has been mum, several of Alabama’s other elected leaders have spoken out. Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-AL) said the members of the Obama administration “have lost their minds” because “eighth grade boys don’t need government-guaranteed access to the sixth grade girls’ bathroom, or vice versa.”
Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) claimed that the guidance will “create an environment with much more potential for sexual misconduct and harm.” He went as far as to say that “the safety implications for sexual predation have been well documented,” even though there is actually no documentationof transgender protections ever making schools less safe.
After a lackluster and failed attempt to recover from the anti-LGBT reputation Indiana developed in 2015 for its “religious liberty” legislation, the state is still siding with discrimination.
Gov. Mike Pence (R) responded to the guidance in a statement demanding, “Policies regarding the security and privacy of students in our schools should be in the hands of Hoosier parents and local schools, not bureaucrats in Washington, DC.” He said Indiana’s school communities will resolves these matters “in a manner that reflects the common sense and compassion of our state.”
But Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz (D) supports the guidance. “In Indiana, we have already seen schools take steps to ensure that their students and staff feel safe regardless of race, religion, sex or gender identity,” she said in a statement. “I will support their efforts, and will continue to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn in a safe and welcoming environment.”
Neither Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) nor Attorney General Sam Olens (R) has commented on the guidance, but a majority of the Senate’s Republicans have called on them to do so. It called on them to sue the Obama administration for overreaching, and to also promise every school in the state that “the State of Georgia will defend them against any lawsuit that may result from not complying with this federal directive.”
The letter suggests not-so-subtly suggests that the guidance amounts to child abuse:
We ensure that children wear seatbelts. We do not allow them to drink alcohol or buy cigarettes until they are 21. We provide significant penalties for those who use children in sex trafficking. We remove children from the custody of those who abuse them.
The federal Executive Branch has now assumed the role of the abuser by threatening the safety and welfare of the children of the State of Georgia. We cannot be complicit in this abuse by being complacent. We must be proactive to come to the defense of our children.
Deal said Tuesday that he does not believe the guidance carries the force of law and asked State School Superintendent Richard Woods to provide guidance to the state’s schools.
Olens went farther, describing the guidance as addressing “a sensitive and complex issue with a sledgehammer.” He said that he will “take steps, when appropriate under the law, to ensure that these decisions are being made at the appropriate level, as demanded by principles of separation of powers and federalism under our Constitution.”
Additionally, House Speaker David Ralston (R) wrote a letter to Georgia’s two members of the U.S. Senate, Johnny Isakson (R) and David Perdue (R), asking them to “protect our students and our local educators from the heavy hand of the federal government.”
A majority of Tennessee’s Republican senators sent a letter Monday to Gov. Bill Haslam (R) and Attorney General Herbert Slatery (R) urging them to join “our neighbors in legal action if necessary opposing the Obama Administration’s ‘decree’ which denies the privacy rights of more than 99 percent of Tennesseans.”
“While a microscopic group of individuals demands accommodation, the opportunism that is created for criminal predators (not within the said group receiving preference) to access their unwilling prey — women and children — is a certain consequence,” they wrote. “The deviancy driving rapists and pedophiles has been dismissed and would most certainly impact and endanger a much larger segment of the public in an irrational fear of media criticism and opposition by a radical political activist subgroup.”
Haslam responded, calling the guidance a “heavy-handed approach” but pointing out that it was simply “an enforcement action and does not make any additional requirements under the law.”
The Wall Street Journal
Catering to its conservative readership, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial Tuesday condemning the transgender student guidance. Relying on an opinion piece they published in 2014 by Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh, the editorial board members assert that “the idea of gender as subjective ‘personal truth’ has no basis in science.”
McHugh’s anti-LGBT bias has been widely documented and his anti-transgender thinkingthoroughly debunked. His rejections of trans identities conflict with the broad consensus of medical professionals; in fact, he is often the only doctor conservatives cite to justify their anti-transgender positions.
The Journal concludes that there should be no national standard for protecting trans people from discrimination. “We made this argument on abortion and gay marriage and will do so again to the transgender activists: Let the states decide.”
The Catholic Church
Not to be left out, two committee chairmen from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) also issued a statement Monday rejecting the guidance as “deeply disturbing.”
Bishop Richard Malone and Archbishop George Lucas explained, “The guidance fails to address a number of important concerns and contradicts a basic understanding of human formation so well expressed by Pope Francis: that ‘the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created.’”
They also quoted Pope Francis as having indicated that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated,” imploring the government to “make room for more just and compassionate approaches and policies in this sensitive area.”
— Zack Ford wrote this article for thinkprogress.com and the article was republished here with permission.