Karen Dolan was a bit of a wreck when she went to meet Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos earlier this month. Just weeks earlier, the Trump administration had revoked Obama-era public school protections for transgender students. Dolan's daughter, a 16-year-old junior at a Washington, D.C., high school, is one of those students who is no longer guaranteed the right to use facilities corresponding with her gender identity, or to have that identity recognized with her preferred name or pronouns.
"[I was] anxious, angry, upset," Dolan tells The Advocate.
Dolan was joined by a small group of similar people — frightened parents of transgender children — at the meeting, which was organized by GLSEN, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and Equality Michigan (DeVos is from Michigan).
Dolan was also a bit confused; after the trans-inclusive guidelines were revoked by the Justice and Education departments, unconfirmed news leaks indicated the conservative-minded DeVos had pushed back against the anti-trans order. Trump and his homophobic, transphobic attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reportedly told DeVos to consent to the revocation or quit. Whether that story's true or not, DeVos did agree to rescind the protections and stayed at her job.
"DeVos had signed the recission of that guidance, which had offered protection to my daughter and ensured that the human rights of all children would be respected," Dolan says. "I felt that she had hurt us all."
Because of DeVos's reported resistance, Dolan held on to a "modicum of hope" as she walked into the meeting.
Dolan describes the gathering as more of a listening session, where she and other parents told DeVos about the experiences of raising a transgender child and their kids' struggles with bullying and discrimination.
"One mother shared the grief of her 14-year-old transgender son taking his own life," Dolan recalls. "We told of how high the statistics for depression, anxiety, and suicide are for trans kids who are in hostile school or home environments."
DeVos didn't respond much verbally, Dolan says, but she did express agreement and empathy: "Either by nodding or uttering 'I know' when we described the universal nature of human rights, the science behind being born transgender, [and] the need for equal protection under the law."
Dolan felt comfortable enough to politely challenge DeVos on her admiration for charter schools and voucher programs, telling the secretary there was even less accountability for the safety of trans children as privately run schools. As during most of the meeting, DeVos "said very little and gave no promise or indication that she will move in a positive direction to champion our children's human rights," Dolan says. "But we hope she will."
The meeting was certainly different from one Dolan and her daughter attended two years ago with former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Dolan and her daughter helped provide Duncan with background when the trans-inclusive guidance was being written.
Dolan believes DeVos could evolve, especially if she is continually exposed to the plight of queer youth. In the end, though, "no one can take away our children's human rights — no education secretary, no attorney general, no commander in chief, no governor or school board or principal," she says. "They are inalienable."