By Rashed Mian and Jaime Franchi
The Obama administration on Friday issued a directive to all public schools in the nation proclaiming that transgender students must be allowed to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.
The joint declaration by the Department of Education and Department of Justice cannot be enforced by law, but school districts could lose federal funds if they’re found to be discriminating against students based on their gender. The directive makes it clear that the administration sees transgender inclusion as a basic civil rights issue—and as such, officials could be held accountable if transgender students’ rights are denied.
On Long Island, the White House’s directive, which also includes school locker rooms, was dubbed a “huge victory” by one of the leading gay and transgender rights groups in the region.
“This is a huge step forward for the transgender community, especially the transgender youth who are attending our schools,” Robert Vitelli, chief operating officer of LI-based LGBT Network, told the Press.
The news comes amid a growing debate over transgender rights spurred by a politically charged law passed in North Carolina earlier this year prohibiting transgender people from using restrooms that don’t align with their gender given at birth. Civil liberties groups have slammed the law as hateful and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the law was nothing more than “state-sponsored discrimination.” Supporters of the law have claimed their decision is based on public safety and not anything nefarious.
In response to controversy, a host of businesses either moving to North Carolina or with plans to expand there have decided not to move forward, and a handful of entertainers cancelled concerts in the Tar Heel State. President Obama has called for the law to be repealed, but North Carolina’s Republican governor was unmoved. Their bitter disagreement will now play out in court after both the DOJ and North Carolina filed counter-lawsuits over the issue.
The federal government’s directive comes nearly a year after the New York State Department of Education issued its own guidelines last year to educate administrators about transgender rights. Vitelli said it was significant that the federal government was following up on what the state has already done. He cited startling statistics that show harassment of LGBT students is remarkably high.
More than one-third of LGBT students report being harassed, he said, and more than 50-percent of transgender youth will attempt suicide at least once by the age of 20. If a transgender student is fortunate enough to receive support from family and friends, the likelihood of them attempting suicide drops considerably, Vitelli noted.
For Michael Hynes, superintendent of schools at Patchogue-Medford School District, inclusivity is paramount. Hynes, a vocal critic of federal government overreach into the public school system, welcomed the directive.
“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling like they don’t belong at school…or in life for that matter,” Hynes told the Press.
Hynes noted that the new federal guidelines provide administrations, teachers and parents the tools they need to “protect transgender students from any harassment and to identify and address policies school districts have in place.”
Ryan Cassata knows first-hand what it’s like for school staffers to tell him which bathroom he could use. At 14, Cassata, a singer-songwriter from Bay Shore, came out as transgender on Larry King Live.
“When I was in high school, the staff was very confused about which bathroom I should use,” he told the Press. Cassata wasn’t permitted to use either the boys or girls bathroom at Bay Shore High School. The confusion also extended to gym class.
Cassata said he had to “fight” just to be able to use the nurse’s bathroom. Now 22, Cassata believes the wheels of change are churning in the right direction.
“Some of the staff didn’t know how to handle transgender students,” Cassata said. “Today, that changes. That changes for the entire country.
“It brings me the greatest pleasure to hear about what the Obama administration has done for the transgender community,” Cassata continued. “This is a step in the right direction, a step toward equality, a step toward transgender people feeling more comfortable at school, a step toward transgender people not committing suicide because of the oppression.”
At the collegiate level, Stony Brook University Dean of Students Tim Ecklund said the college is already in the process of transitioning its student activity building restrooms to all-gender, which would be a first among SUNY colleges.
Ecklund also noted that all-gender restrooms will be installed in all newly constructed buildings on campus.
“Our transgender students, like all of our student body, are very important to us,” Ecklund told the Press. “We want to offer them the best possible experience at Stony Brook and will do our best to support them in any we can.”
The new directives comes a little more than a week after the New York State Assembly once against voted in favor of an anti-discrimination bill that would protect transgender people looking for housing, employment or education. The legislation, however, has for years stalled in the state Senate and is likely to fall short again this legislative session.