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Tearing down walls for transgender students

Bathroom signs designed by artist Peregrine Honig reflect the changing times on the rights of transgender people. Photo by Gerry Broome, AP.

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President Barack Obama’s decision to send a letter to every public school district in America advising them that transgender students have certain protected rights under federal law is historic.

It will be listed among his top achievements, and it matters greatly.

The letter, signed by Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights for the U.S. Department of Education, and Vanita Gupta of the Justice Department, flat-out says schools cannot discriminate against transgender students. They are protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.

“A school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity,” the letter says.

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The letter makes clear that transgender kids need equal access to an education and all that goes with it, whether it’s participating in sports or using the bathroom.

Schools that discriminate risk being sued and losing federal funding.

The letter comes as the Obama administration and the state of North Carolina engage in a legal battle over that state’s adoption of a law requiring people to use male or female bathrooms and locker rooms that match the sex on their birth certificates. For example, a student who identifies as a girl but was considered male at birth cannot use the girls’ bathroom at school.

The White House says the North Carolina law is in violation of Title IX. That contention has more heft since a federal appeals court ruled last month in favor of a transgender student who sued his school over an alleged a Title IX violation. He was born female but identifies as male and wants to use the boys’ restroom. That case is headed back to a lower court.

Many school districts will now be able to point to federal law to avoid local fights over this issue — Obama has made it a little easier for them to do the right thing — just as so many school districts in the South ultimately ended racial desegregation by pointing to Washington and saying they had no choice.

Transgender students should not be penalized or ostracized because some adults have misgivings, worries typically rooted in ignorance or prejudices. “As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students,” the letter says.

Additionally, the government is emphasizing students’ right to privacy. Administrators must keep confidential a student’s sex at birth or a birth name that was later changed. It offers several examples of how school districts across the U.S. are providing “a safe, supportive, and nondiscriminatory learning for all students.” Policies adopted by Chicago Public Schools, such as its guideline that students don’t have to obtain a court order as a prerequisite to change their name or sex designation on official records, are cited.

Struggles with gender identity are tough enough for transgender kids. When your country, at the highest levels, says you should be accepted — that this is a new normal — it’s a shot in the arm for all who have endured shame because they don’t conform to sex assigned at birth.

Of course, some school districts and states will sue the government (Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has promised a fight), saying Obama has overstepped, and that’s fine, too. Bring it on. Nobody — not women, not black people, not gay people — ever gained equal rights in this country by backing down from a fight. Already, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, the Department of Education and the Justice Department are named in a lawsuit brought by groups who want a recent agreement to accommodate a transgender student rescinded.

Obama is showing, as he did with his executive order on immigration and by allowing gays to openly serve in the military, that he’s going to use the powers of his office to push for civil rights for marginalized groups. He had to be dragged out of the closet on gay rights, so to speak, by Vice President Joe Biden, but now he’s fully there. Protecting the rights of transgender students should go down as one of his most significant stands.

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