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Obama: Fighting for Trans Rights Requires Changing Hearts, Not Laws

Obama: Fighting for Trans Rights Requires Changing Hearts, Not Laws

Barack Obama at a town hall in Elkheart Indiana

Struggling to understand what bathroom transgender people should use? President Obama has a simple test: Imagine your child was trans and needed to go potty at school. 


As his administration has made abundantly clear in the past few months, President Obama believes that transgender people are already protected under existing federal civil rights law.

But Obama says what's standing in the way of full equality for transgender Americans isn't just the blatantly transphobic laws cropping up around the country. There's a critical lack of understanding of the hostile environment transgender Americans -- especially youth -- are facing, according to the president in a town hall hosted and live-streamed by PBS Newshour on Wednesday.

"What happened and what continues to happen is you have transgender kids in schools," said Obama in Elkhart, Ind. "And they get bullied. And they get ostracized. And it's tough for them."

The president, a father of two daughters, stressed that the key to understanding this issue is to "deal with this issue the same way we'd want it dealt with if it was our child." That's also known as the Golden Rule -- a principle Obama powerfully articulated during Wednesday's town hall.

"And that is to try to create an environment of some dignity and kindness for these kids," said Obama, answering his own hypothetical. "And that's sort of the bottom line. I have to just say what's in my heart but I also have to look at, you know, what's the law? And my best interpretation of what our laws and our obligations are is that we should try to accommodate these kids so that they are not in a vulnerable situation."

The commander in chief demonstrated a powerful sense of empathy for the struggles faced especially by transgender students, a staggering 82 percent of whom reported feeling unsafe in school, according to the most recent school climate survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. He acknowledged that youth today are coming out younger than ever before and that culture has evolved beyond his own generation, when bullying and harassment in school was considered almost a rite of passage, leaving victims to "suffer in silence," Obama said.

Obama was responding to a question from Arvis Dawson, a local man identified as a leading activist, who wanted to know why there was so much focus on who can use what bathroom when there are much more "pressing issues" facing the president. Dawson stressed that his faith practice has instilled in him a deep respect for "equal rights for everyone."

Aside from agreeing with Dawson that there are indeed more pressing national issues than where transgender students relieve themselves, the president went on to offer his most in-depth comments to date illuminating the rationale behind his trans-affirming stance.

Obama stressed that the recent guidance his Department of Education issued to schools nationwide about how to accommodate trans students came to be not through executive fiat, but as a response to inquiries from numerous schools grappling with how to respect transgender students.

Obama painted the scene leading up to May issuance of the guidelines (which are not legally binding): "If the school districts around the country ask me, 'What do you think we should do?' Then what we're going to do is tell them let's find a way to accommodate them in a way that makes sure that these kids are not, you know, excluded and ostracized."

Dawson, who said he was satisfied with the president's response to his question, went on to note that his religious background called him to support equal rights for everyone.

"But I think too, wherever you were going to the bathroom before, continue to go to the bathroom there," added Dawson. "I don't have a problem with that."

That's when Obama got personal about his reason for supporting equal access for trans students. The president used his Christian faith to justify this fair treatment -- a powerful response to the growing chorus of conservatives who claim that "religious freedom" allows businesses, individuals, and even schools to discriminate against LGBT people.

It's a big block quote, but it's an important one. As Obama explained in unprecedently personal terms:

"The problem is just for a lot of these kids, they might not even feel comfortable going to the bathroom, which is a tough situation if you're a kid. And, look, I have profound respect for everybody's religious beliefs on this. But if you're at a public school, the question is, how do we just make sure that children are treated with kindness. That's all.

"And you know, my reading of scripture tells me that that Golden Rule is pretty high up there in terms of my Christian belief.

"That doesn't mean somebody else has to interpret it the same way. It does mean, as president of the United States, those are the values that I think are important. Now, this is going to be settled by the courts, ultimately. There have been lawsuits everywhere. I just wanted to emphasize to you, though. ... It's not like I woke up one day and I said, man, you know what we really need to do is let's start working on high school bathrooms. ...

"But one of the things that, as president, you learn is that you don't choose the issues all the time. The issues come to you. And then you have to make your best judgment about what you think is right. And I've expressed what I think is the best judgment that is consistent with our traditions and our laws."

Indeed, it was 2014 when the Department of Education first affirmed that transgender students are protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1973, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funds. Last year the Department ruled that a school district in Illinois had discriminated against a transgender teenager when they barred her from using the girl's bathroom and locker room, instead relegating her to a private bathroom used by staff.

Late last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a Virginia school board's request to re-hear a case that determined the school had discriminated against Gavin Grimm, a 16-year-old transgender boy, when he was abruptly banned from using the boys' bathroom on school grounds, despite the fact that he'd been using the facility without incident for some time prior. A district judge had initially ruled in favor of the school district, but that decision was overturned on appeal. Friday's refusal to rehear the case -- which none of the 15 judges in the circuit were interested in reconsidering -- means that the trans-affirming ruling is law in the Fourth Circuit, which includes Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maryland. The Federal Department of Justice had previously weighed in on Grimm's behalf, filing a "friend of the court" brief last October that argued the teenager had a right to access facilities that matched his gender identity under the protections of Title IX.

Watch the segment of the town hall discussion with the conversation about transgender students below.

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