By Meg Wagner
An issue for the states
President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday ditched federal guidelines allowing transgender students in public schools to use the bathrooms of their choice, instead insisting that each state should be able to make its own rules about the hot-button issue.
Instructions issued in May by former President Barack Obama allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identities, not just their biological sex. Progressives hailed those guidelines as a major victory for transgender rights.
But on Wednesday, the White House withdrew the guidelines, putting the power to determine which students may use which bathrooms back into states’ hands.
“This is an issue best solved at the state and local level,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement that also assured the department was dedicated to protecting all students, including those in the LGBTQ community. “Schools, communities and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students.”
Sources close to DeVos said she initially wanted to leave Obama’s guidelines in place, but butted heads with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who advocated for the repeal. DeVos’s friends said she personally supports transgender rights; Sessions has a track record of opposing LGBTQ rights issues.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied reports of the cabinet tensions on Wednesday.
“There’s no daylight between anybody — between the president, between any of the secretaries,” he said.
North Carolina and beyond
Legislation dictating transgender bathroom rights has been debated in at least 24 states since 2013. This includes both conservative bills that would limit bathroom choice to a person’s biological sex, and more progressive measures to make bathroom access easier for transgender people.
The issue gained national attention in March 2016 when North Carolina passed HB2, which banned people from using public restrooms that didn’t correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates.
The highly controversial bill, signed into law just hours after it passed, also bars local North Carolina governments from passing their own laws on the issue in order to bypass the state mandate. The move prompted multiple national companies to boycott business in the state. Earlier this month, six Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill to repeal HB2.
Amid the intense debate over the North Carolina law, the Obama administration in May 2016 reaffirmed its support of transgender rights, issuing its guidelines for all federal public schools and threatening to withhold funding from schools that did not comply.
“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” said then education secretary John B. King Jr. at the time.
State bills and celebrity outcry
The White House’s revocation of the pro-transgender rights guidelines quickly prompted its own furious wave of backlash from politicians and celebrities alike.
“This move shows that President Trump cannot be trusted to defend the rights of LGBT Americans. This is not a state issue. This is an issue of equality for all,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.).
Jackie Evancho, the America’s Got Talent contestant who performed at Trump’s January inauguration, slammed the Wednesday roll back, referencing her older transgender sister, Juliet, in her condemnation.
“I am obviously disappointed in the @POTUS decision to send the #transgender bathroom issue to the states to decide. #sisterlove,” the teenager singer tweeted.
Katy Perry, Josh Groban, and a slew of other A-listers also condemned the removal of the protections.
While Hollywood and Washington fume over the new anti-directives, states will now have to decide how — and if — they want to police their public bathrooms.
Legislatures in 14 states are considering “bathroom bill” legislation this session. Many of these specify that public school students can only use the restroom that correlates to the sex on their birth certificates.