Politicians in Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere vowed defiance – and other conservative states could follow suit – after the Obama administration told public schools across the U.S. on Friday to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
In New Mexico, where two of the state’s largest school districts have already grappled with the issue, a spokesman for the state Public Education Department said the agency is still reviewing the federal guidance to gauge how it will impact students.
But PED spokesman Robert McEntyre also expressed concern about the directive, saying, “Ultimately, we do feel that this is a big overreach by the federal government and that an issue like this would be best handled at the school district level.”
Meanwhile, University of New Mexico officials said Friday that they believe the university is already in compliance with the federal directive. UNM has tried to include universal bathroom facilities in new campus construction projects and renovations of older buildings, a spokeswoman said.
“The idea of universal restrooms is not new to our campus – UNM has several universal restrooms on campus – located throughout the campus,” said Jenna Crabb, UNM’s interim dean of students. “We want all our students to feel safe on our campus – especially when using the restroom based on their identified gender.”
The directive from the U.S. Justice and Education departments was sent to schools across the country and represents an escalation in the fast-moving dispute over what is becoming the civil rights issue of the day.
It came just days after the Justice Department and North Carolina sued each other over a state law requiring transgender people to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificates. The law applies to schools and many other places.
Although supporters say the law is needed to protect women and children from sexual predators, the Justice Department and others argue that the threat is practically nonexistent and the law is discriminatory.
The federal government’s guidance was met with tearful praise from parents of transgender students.
Before the new law, Hunter Schafer, 17, had no problems being accepted by her peers at the North Carolina School of the Arts, a residential high school in Winston-Salem where she has lived in the girls’ dormitory.
With the passage of the law, Schafer said, she found herself “just having to decide do I break the law or do I put myself in this highly uncomfortable or highly dangerous situation in the men’s restroom?”
Eventually, the school gave her access to a single-user restroom.
Her father, Mac Schafer of Raleigh, was elated to hear the new guidance from the Obama administration.
“As a parent, some of your core instincts are protection for your child,” he said. “To know that the federal government is pushing for respect and safe space and rights for Hunter is thrilling.”
The guidance issued Friday is not legally binding, because the question of whether federal civil rights law protects transgender people has not been definitively answered by the courts and may ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.
But schools that refuse to comply could be hit with civil rights lawsuits from the government, and the Obama administration could also try to cut off federal aid to schools to force compliance.
Some school systems around the country already accommodate transgender students when it comes to bathroom use.
Albuquerque Public Schools administrators have been considering a policy directive that would allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, though the proposal has ignited debate.
Under its terms, transgender students could also dress in accordance with their gender identity and be addressed by the name and gender pronoun of their choosing.
Santa Fe Public Schools quietly approved similar rules – aimed at protecting transgender students from discrimination – earlier this year that had been modeled after a policy enacted in San Francisco.
Outside the state, nearly half the schools in the 53,000-student Seattle district have gender-neutral restrooms, and students can also use the bathrooms in the nurses’ office, spokeswoman Stacy Howard said.
Already, officials from eight states – West Virginia, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Maine and North Carolina – signed on to a brief in recent days asking a federal appeals court to rehear a case in which it sided with a Virginia transgender student seeking to use the boys’ bathroom.
Texas’ lieutenant governor said the state is prepared to forfeit billions rather than let the Obama administration dictate restroom policy for its 5.2 million students.
“We will not be blackmailed by the president’s 30 pieces of silver,” Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said.
Similarly, GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said schools should disregard the directive, which he derided as “social engineering.”