Guidance Released on Transgender Access to School Bathrooms

WASHINGTON — Last Friday, a joint letter from the Departments of Education and Justice went to public schools, addressing guidelines to ensure that “transgender students enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment,” the Obama administration said. While the letter does not specifically cite enforcement of the law, it was the latest attempt to make it clear that if state schools do not agree to follow the message, they risk losing federal funding.

Justice and Education Department officials continue to emphasize that under their interpretation of Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law in education, schools that receive federal funding may not discriminate based on a student’s sex, which includes a student’s transgender status. The announcement is the latest in a controversial national debate about transgender rights in schools — which most recently includes the legal standoff between the administration and North Carolina over the state’s House Bill 2 that attempts to disallow transgender people access to bathrooms reserved for their gender identity. The guidance letter not only addresses the bathroom issue, but it also touches upon privacy rights, education records and sex-segregated athletics, saying that transgender students have the legal right to identify in school as they choose, according to CNN.

“Schools should let transgender students use bathrooms, locker rooms and other sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity,” the guidance stated. “Staff should address transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns. Schools cannot require students to have a medical diagnosis, undergo any medical treatment, or produce a birth certificate before treating them consistent with their gender identity.”

Several state governors are unhappy about the guidance letter. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant issued a statement on Friday, telling the Mississippi Department of Education to disregard the guidance. “The directive is nonbonding and does not carry the force of law,” Bryant said. “Because these decisions are better left to the states, and not made at the point of a federal bayonet, Mississippi’s public schools should not participate in the president’s social experiment.”

On the other side, LGBT groups supported the announcement, calling it a validation of transgender rights. "These groundbreaking guidelines not only underscore the Obama administration’s position that discriminating against transgender students is flat-out against the law, but they provide public school districts with needed and specific guidance guaranteeing that transgender students should be using facilities consistent with their gender identity," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement.