The Trump administration has rescinded key protections for transgender students in public schools. The move reverses President Obama’s landmark decision last May to order public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms matching their chosen gender identity. The Obama administration had threatened to withhold funding for schools that did not comply. According to press accounts, there was a split in the Trump administration over the issue between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The New York Times reports Devos initially resisted signing off and told Trump that she was uncomfortable because of the potential harm that rescinding the protections could cause transgender students. At a meeting on Tuesday in the White House, the president sided with Sessions and pushed DeVos to drop her opposition, which she did. We speak to Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS Project.
AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration has rescinded key protections for transgender students in public schools. The move reverses President Obama’s landmark decision last May to order public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms matching their chosen gender identity. The Obama administration had threatened to withhold funding for schools that did not comply.
According to press accounts, there was a split in the Trump administration over the issue between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The New York Times reports DeVos initially resisted signing off and told Trump she was uncomfortable because of the potential harm that rescinding the protections could cause transgender students. At a meeting on Tuesday in the Oval Office, the president sided with Sessions and pushed DeVos to drop her opposition, which she did. DeVos later issued a statement saying, in part, quote, “This is an issue best solved at the state and local level.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the White House to call on Trump to protect transgender speakers. Participants included Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender student in Virginia whose lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board has gone to the Supreme Court.
GAVIN GRIMM: It’s frustrating that that was even proposed, but this isn’t going to stop us in our tracks. We’re going to fight as hard as we always have. And that doesn’t—we’ll not slow down at any point and for any reason.
AMY GOODMAN: Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality also spoke outside the White House.
MARA KEISLING: The worst-case scenario is what is already happening. Children all over the country are scared by this man. They are really worried that they’re going to go to school tomorrow, they’re going to be bullied. These are kids who have to go to school all the time worried about being bullied by other kids, being bullied sometimes even by educators. And now they have to worry about the attorney general of the United States and the president of the United States bullying them? It’s just not OK.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about President Trump’s decision to roll back protections for transgender students, we’re joined by Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS Project. The ACLU is representing Gavin Grimm in his Supreme Court case.
Welcome, Chase. Talk about the significance of what’s just taken place.
CHASE STRANGIO: You know, thanks for having me. And yesterday’s action by the Trump administration was really just another example of mean-spirited targeting of vulnerable individuals—this time, transgender young people. The protections that the Obama administration clarified in the guidance last year were incredibly important for this community that is so vulnerable to violence and bullying in schools. What’s important, though, is that as much as the Trump administration may want to change federal law, it’s still in the province of Congress and the courts. And so, yesterday’s actions, while sending a terrible message to the young people who are going to school in this country, young people who face incredibly high rates of suicide and harassment, it does not change the law. And that’s important, because the protections themselves come from Title IX, they come from the Constitution, and the president himself and his executive agencies cannot change that.
AMY GOODMAN: So this Supreme Court case that has been brought by Gavin Grimm, this Supreme Court case will determine what happens?
CHASE STRANGIO: Absolutely. Yesterday’s actions just highlight just how important this case is. This case before the Supreme Court involving Gavin Grimm, the 17-year-old boy from Virginia who’s being barred from the common spaces at his school just because he is transgender, his case is before the—
AMY GOODMAN: No, what do you mean? Explain just—he’s being barred from the common spaces.
CHASE STRANGIO: His school has passed a policy, solely because his principal and his guidance counselor and the people closest to him at the school said, “We understand that you’re a boy, and you will be allowed to use the boys’ restrooms and other facilities, just like other boys.” And his school board decided that that was unacceptable, and passed a policy targeting him, explaining that he, and he alone, is not able to use the shared restrooms and has to be banished to a separate, isolating, faraway and stigmatizing restroom.
And he filed a lawsuit. The case is before the Supreme Court. The case is not mooted by yesterday’s actions, because the question before the court is: Well, what does Title IX mean when it comes to transgender students? And courts, for many, many years, have made clear that prohibitions on sex discrimination include prohibitions on discrimination against people who are transgender because they are transgender.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the White House press briefing yesterday with Press Secretary Sean Spicer talking about the Supreme Court decision.
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: There is a case pending in the Supreme Court in which we have to decide whether or not to continue to issue guidance to the court. We—it’s not—it’s dictated by that. The Obama administration had issued joint guidance from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice. We now have to decide whether or not this administration wants to continue that track that they were on. It’s plain and simple, if we don’t. But there are problems both in the legal and process way in which that guidance was issued. And so it’s incumbent upon us to actually follow the law.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer talking about the Supreme Court case.
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, and Press Secretary Spicer does seem a little bit confused about the case, because the United States is not a party to the case. The United States has no role. There’s no deadline impending for them. And the parties to the case—Gavin Grimm and the Gloucester County School Board—have agreed before the court that the court should resolve the substantive question about Title IX. So, there was no deadline with respect to that case. That case moves forward. And it is, in fact, the answer to the question of how we respond to this cruel action by the Trump administration that we saw yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain what these reports are in The New York Times and other places of the DeVos-Sessions battle in the Oval Office on Tuesday? That’s Education Secretary DeVos, well known for years for her anti-gay stance, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
CHASE STRANGIO: Well, I wasn’t there. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. I have to admit I’m a little bit surprised to hear it. I would have thought perhaps both DeVos and Sessions would have been very much in support of rescinding this guidance. Certainly, it is not a surprise from Sessions, who we are hearing is absolutely determined to roll back not only the guidance, but the substantive protections for trans individuals.
When it comes to DeVos, what I can say is, I am imagining that she was presented with the very clear evidence that transgender students face high rates of bullying and harassment and suicide, and that the thing that helps protect trans students is respecting who they are and treating them like their other—like their peers. And so, she must have thought, as she should, that perhaps it was a terrible idea to take away clarity about the protections for this population, when we know that with support and protections, trans students have comparable mental health outcomes to non-trans students, and, without them, they face rates of suicide attempts nine times their peers. So, the reality is that, you know, maybe she took a pause to think perhaps this was going to be a horrible idea. But, unfortunately, she caved.
And the reality is that kids will be harmed by this. And, you know, I can’t say it more strongly, but the blood is on the hands of these lawmakers, who are making it a priority to make vulnerable kids feel less safe.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Donald Trump himself. President Donald Trump was asked about transgender rights when he was running for president and appeared at a town hall event on NBC’s Today show. This was last April.
WILLIE GEIST: [reading] “Mr. Trump, please be specific. Tell us your views on LGBT, how you plan to be inclusive as president. Speak about North Carolina bathroom law, in particular.”
DONALD TRUMP: Oh, I had a feeling that question was going to come up, I will tell you. Well, look, North Carolina did something, was very strong, and they’re paying a big price. And there’s a lot of problems. And I heard—one of the best answers I heard was from a commentator yesterday saying, “Leave it the way it is right now. There have been very few problems. Leave it the way it is.” North Carolina, what they’re going through with all of the business that’s leaving and all of the strife and—and that’s on both sides. You leave it the way it is. There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble. And the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and the economic—I mean, the economic punishment that they’re taking. So, I would say that’s probably the best plan.
WILLIE GEIST: Do you have any transgender people working in your organization?
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know.
WILLIE GEIST: No?
DONALD TRUMP: I really don’t know. I probably do. I really don’t know.
WILLIE GEIST: So, if Caitlyn Jenner were to walk into Trump Tower and want to use the bathroom, you would be fine with her using any bathroom she chooses?
DONALD TRUMP: That is correct.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Caitlyn Jenner could use any bathroom she chooses in Trump Tower, candidate Donald Trump said. But President Donald Trump has gone with a very different approach.
CHASE STRANGIO: You know, that was a surprising amount of clarity from then-candidate Trump on the issue. And I think what it reflects is that when people first think about this, it makes perfect sense to not worry about where people go to the bathroom, because actually we’ve all been using the bathroom, trans people and non-trans people alike, for a very long time with no problems. And the emphasis on trying to expel trans people from the bathrooms we’ve been using for decades is, in fact, creating the problems. I think what we’ve seen now in his shift of position is, you know, he’s being caught up in the rhetoric that is really about demonizing trans individuals and making it seem not palatable to share public space with us. But that’s just simply not a tenable position.
And when it comes to the idea of states’ rights, federal civil laws—federal civil rights laws are, by definition, designed to create federal standards when it comes to civil rights. So there’s no way that he can, you know, relegate this to the states, when we’re talking about the United States Constitution and federal civil rights laws, which, by their definition, are designed to ensure that people’s rights can’t be rolled back at the state level.
AMY GOODMAN: So, just two days before President Obama left office, he spoke about the change over the last decade around LGBTQ rights.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m proud that in certain places we maybe provided a good block downfield to help the movement advance. I don’t think it is something that will be reversible, because American society has changed, the attitudes of young people, in particular, have changed. That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be some fights that are important—legal issues, issues surrounding transgender persons. There are still going to be some battles that need to take place.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama right before he left office, Chase.
CHASE STRANGIO: You know, he’s right. You know, one of the key things he said is that we are not going to roll back the progress. And that’s absolutely right. Not only does this action by the Trump administration not change the substantive legal protections, but the reality is that there’s a movement of people supporting the trans community, trans people are out there speaking for themselves, and that to the extent people’s answer to the question of what to do about trans people existing in the world is to tell us not to exist at all, that is just simply not tenable, and people will not stand for that. And I know that we will continue to march forward, and we will continue to stand beside the young people, particularly, who are taking on so much.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, on June 12th, it was Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, who opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a clear terrorist attack. After the Orlando shooting, Michigan lawmaker Jeremy Moss tweeted, “I literally never want to hear again that LGBT people in the bathroom are a threat to public safety.” So what happens next, Chase?
CHASE STRANGIO: You know, what happens next is we tell the young people and their families that we will not stop fighting for them, and we tell everyone in this country to mobilize around the Supreme Court case that’s happening, with arguments on March 28th, because that is where we will continue to make our case for the protections that transgender individuals need, and we will stand in solidarity with all of the communities being targeted by this administration.
AMY GOODMAN: And if a child or anyone is harassed in school, wherever, what can they do?
CHASE STRANGIO: If a child is harassed, if they’re denied access to the restroom, they can contact their local ACLU office. They can contact any organization that works with the LGBT community in their state. They can find me on Twitter. They can search for other people who are out there. We will not be silent, and we will not let people be isolated and targeted, no matter how much targeting happens from the federal government and down into the states.
AMY GOODMAN: Chase Strangio, thank you very much for joining us. Chase Strangio is staff attorney at the ACLU.
When we come back, we go to North Dakota to the standoff at Standing Rock. Stay with us.