A few weeks ago, we three transgender women, Jennifer Williams, Gina Roberts, and Jordan Evans, traveled across our country to Washington, D.C., to join another transgender woman, Susan Maddison, and Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, at the U.S. Department of Education. We were there to meet with senior members of the department and to present our white paper, titled “Transgender Student Safety & Equality for All Students,” which the four of us had spent months researching and writing. As members of the Log Cabin Republicans, we remain very proud to have been asked by our organization to craft such a document in response to the Trump administration’s February 21 rescinding of the 2016 Obama administration guidance on school accommodations for transgender students.
Before we even began our work, the Log Cabin Republicans gave us the following guidelines for our white paper: write it in a timely fashion and offer conservative-based solutions. That is it. Log Cabin also added that we would be the white paper’s only authors and that the group would be taking a hands-off approach all the way. These are important facts because transgender people make up a small minority of the Log Cabin Republicans, just as in the greater LGBTQ community. But our organization was not only raising the flag of the transgender community regarding the rescinded guidance, but Log Cabin wanted to do something about it and make the situation better. Its doing so is a bold statement and yes, a big (expletive) deal for LGBTQ Republicans and conservatives.
While writing our white paper, we never let the needs of the greater LGBTQ community stray from our minds. We didn’t always agree as a team on how to best serve those needs, but we always worked it out. The issues were just too important. First and foremost, 200,000 transgender schoolchildren were counting on us to try to help find solutions. Even if we are Republican, we are transgender Americans, and that is what counts. Because when GLSEN reported in 2016 that “18.7% of LGBTQ students had unwillingly been required to use the bathroom or locker room of their legal sex, including 59.2% of transgender students … and 10.8% of LGBTQ students had been prevented from using their preferred name, including 42.2% of transgender students,” that shows there is a problem for everyone.
No matter how nervous we were going into our meeting, we knew that our reasons were for being at the Department of Education were just and, as our party is in charge, politically smart. Fortunately, the reception we received from the department's staff upon our arrival was warm, appreciative, and yet serious. This was going to be a good, productive day.
Our presentation to DOE began with each of us transgender women sharing our lives and stories before we would discuss the pressing education issues generating this meeting. As many Advocate readers know firsthand, discussing your struggles as LGBTQ people is never easy for anyone. We gladly did so to help build upon DOE’s knowledge of our community. Afterward, the subject turned to our paper and our conservative-influenced solutions to accommodate the needs of both transgender and nontransgender students in America’s public schools.
We immediately presented our overarching argument to the Department of Education: the safety and accommodation of transgender students is a civil rights issue and not a states’ rights issue; however, it is one that warrants local control to better address the concerns of transgender and nontransgender students (and their parents).
Simply, U.S. public school systems need federal guidance, but with local flexibility. Unfortunately, some conservatives have taken the position that allowing transgender students to share intimate facilities with nontransgender children puts both groups at risk. Their closely held belief is partly due to the Obama-era guidance requiring that full access be afforded to all children based on their self-defined gender identity. However, the Obama guidance did not clearly define how full access would actually work out on the ground in our communities or address equal privacy for both transgender and nontransgender students. In addition, the lack of public information on the actual costs of implementing restroom and locker room accommodations for transgender students was being cited by some Obama guidance opponents as potential barriers to implementing any future guidelines. This all led to numerous lawsuits around the country from both sides of the argument and created a legal mess that is still making its way through our courts.
In a country as diverse as ours and with religious freedom being an important policy focus for many Americans, we believe that new federal guidance addressing both transgender and nontransgender students is both necessary and an improvement on the Obama guidance. One concept we have come across time and again during our research is that both transgender and nontransgender students want privacy. It is our team’s opinion that any future solution regarding equal restroom and locker room accommodations for transgender and nontransgender students must involve increasing individual-level privacy in our nation’s schools for everyone. Doing so will also be of service to millions of students who are not transgender, such as those who are physically disabled, need caretakers, medically injured, or just modest and fearful of body-shaming.
The array of solutions we offered to the DOE were influenced by a simple ideal: Transgender and nontransgender students have the same rights to privacy and thus should be treated equally.
To achieve equality for transgender and nontransgender students, our white paper offers gender-affirming solutions that allow school districts some flexibility in accommodating students in ways that work best for every student and their school under Title IX. The importance and applicability of Title IX regarding gender identity cannot be overstated and it underlies all of our work. Furthermore, our white paper offers workable and pragmatic solutions that do not undermine Title IX’s legal standing or cause “sticker shock” regarding costs of accommodating transgender students.
We also offered the DOE a series of options for guiding schools and school districts to work collaboratively with transgender students to safely identify themselves to faculty, administration, and staff members without causing an undue burden on them (or their parents). All of our options and solutions are based on the law, our research of what schools are doing around the country, our shared belief in limited government, and of course, our own lived experiences as transgender people.
For example, in many of the schools we surveyed, we found that the costs are minimal for the simplest (and most frequently used) solutions like changing door signage or locks — less than $25 at the local hardware store. In some schools, the establishment of a single-stall gender-neutral restroom or shower facility (for use by everyone) has become very popular with nontransgender students, faculty, and staff, as they appreciate the individual privacy these facilities afford. This type of restroom can at least combat the shameful practice of schools only offering a “transgender restroom” or a transgender student’s stigmatic walk to the nurse’s office (which still occurs in some schools in the United States).
One specific example of a school doing it right and moving into the future is Grant High School in Portland, Ore. Grant High School principal Carol Campbell told our team of the success her school has had offering single-stall, gender-inclusive restrooms and reported that after a short period of time, many of the nontransgender students and faculty began to share the single-stall, gender-inclusive restroom. Further, no restroom modifications were needed, as it just required a simple change of restroom signage and the addition of a feminine product disposal box. In two years, Grant High School will be moving on to multiple-stall, gender-inclusive restrooms as a new high school is completed. Grant’s administration and architects based the new high school’s restroom accommodations on what is currently done at the University of Oregon football stadium — which uses individualized, gender-neutral stalls with floor-to-ceiling walls/doors (a la outdoor portable toilets). Granted, this is the ultimate in innovation, but it is an example of what the future is likely to be.
The need for federal guidance for our schools could not be more clear than in ensuring that transgender students will have the ability to safely let their administration know they are transgender in order to begin transitioning socially (if not medically) while in school. We offered solutions for this to occur and suggested to the DOE that any requirements for “evidence” of a student’s transgender status have some flexibility and offer some choices, in order to satisfy the rule that they must not be unduly laborious, very difficult to obtain, or dismissive of a student’s identity. For example, a school district should allow the student, at the very least, to provide any one of the following methods, while retaining the flexibility to use other methods not included in this list:
• A letter from a student’s parent or legal guardian
• A letter from a professional therapist
• A letter or notification of gender transitioning from a medical professional
• A letter issued by a guidance counselor or nurse in the aforementioned school district
• Assessment by school district personnel (in the case of a student frequently presenting as the gender they identify as without a formal document) with the intent to work with the student in determining what works best in their case
This would establish, administratively, a student’s transgender status at their school and/or within their school district. Pursuant to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act ), it would be the responsibility of the administrative staff to maintain confidentiality and not disclose the transgender student’s status to the student body, the student’s parents, or others, except as authorized by the student. This also allows for ample flexibility for municipalities, whose school districts can add other options as acceptable criteria as long as they meet the baseline standard that evidence must not be unduly difficult to obtain. At the same time, it fully addresses and resolves the concerns that have been expressed by some that nontransgender students might take advantage of the terms of the recently rescinded Obama “Dear Colleague” letter.
Just as it would be available to any student in the instance of an error in documentation, transgender students should have the freedom and opportunity to submit updated information to change information that was provided during the student’s first enrolled into the education system. Like changing a residential or mailing address, changing the gender marker on student records should be as simple and uneventful of a process.
Just as nontransgender students exercise their gender identity via the information provided to the school, including information provided by a parent upon enrollment, Social Security information, and from various forms of self-identification and gender expression provided by the student, transgender students should also be allowed that same level of respect.
It is paramount that some practical solutions be offered to protect transgender students in states where no school district-level protections currently exist or likely will soon. Transgender schoolchildren in red states deserve some modicum of safety and privacy just as their sisters and brothers in more protective parts of America may already have. At least, until Gavin Grimm wins his case, and we hope he does.
Where do we go from here? Our team is still in discussion with the Department of Education, and we are working to partner with others to find agreeable solutions. It was in this spirit that the three of us used the remainder of our time in Washington to help make such partnerships happen. Gina Roberts made her way to Capitol Hill to lobby Republican members of Congress on LGBTQ rights and discuss a host of issues. Gina was very well received by the congressional staffers she met, and she had substantial discussions with them.
Meanwhile, Jordan Evans and Jennifer Williams went about town introducing themselves to Trans United Fund, National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Human Rights Campaign as fellow LGBTQ community members who happen to be Republican. Jordan and Jennifer had friendly discussions with staff members from each organization and found issues where future collaboration may be possible. An immediate collaboration occurred that very night when Human Rights Campaign staffers invited Jennifer and Jordan to join their #EyesOnChechnya protest, confronting Chechnya’s persecution of its own gay citizens.
In considering our presentation of our white paper, “Transgender Student Safety & Equality for All Students,” to the U.S. Department of Education and our personal outreach efforts, we feel confident that our trip was a success. With many different voices speaking in unison on the main issue of accommodations for transgender schoolchildren, our LGBTQ community’s chances at success are now greater because of the Log Cabin Republicans becoming part of the discussion. May we all succeed together.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS, GINA ROBERTS, and JORDAN EVANS are members of the Log Cabin Republicans.