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President Obama Heightens Debate on Transgender Rights With Directive on Restroom Access

( [email protected] ) May 13, 2016 05:27 PM EDT
The Obama administration directed all public schools to allow transgender students to allow access in restrooms according to gender.
President Obama took the gavel in condemning the law in North Carolina on transgender. Photo: The New York Times

The Obama administration pulled another controversy by issuing a letter this Friday directing all public school districts in the country to allow transgender students to use bathroom according to gender, a move expected to draw strong criticisms by Republicans and undermine the ongoing court battle between the North Carolina and the Justice Department on bathroom access.

Though not legally binding, it is useful in a lawsuit or the public school that refuses to abide with it losses federal aid. The letter carries the signature of Justice and Education officials.

"No student should ever has to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school," Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said, adding that young people should be assured with equal opportunity in a peaceful  environment and free of discrimination.

Critics had feasted on Obama when the President openly supports same-sex marriage, allowing gays in the military and prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating them.

This new development is viewed as a clear meddling in local affairs, imposing its own set of values to the community across the country, and changing the civil rights landscape on gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender with the combination of policies lawsuits and public statements.

A paragraph of the letter read: "A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not."

"It is the school's obligation under federal law to ensure nondiscrimination on the basis of sex, provide transgender students equal access to educational programs and activities even in circumstance in which other students, parents, or community members raise objections or concerns," it states, adding that  "As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate other's discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages of the particular class of students."

It further said that when a child's parent or legal guardian asserts a gender identity for the student that "differs from previous representations or records," the child is to be treated accordingly without any requirement for a medical diagnosis or birth certificate to be produced. The schools may, but are not required to provide other restroom and locker room options to students who seek "additional privacy" for whatever reason.

Attached to the letter is a 25-page document describing the "emerging practices" in many schools across the country, a blog by senior officials of the Justice and Education Departments answering probable questions by different sectors.

"Schools want a right thing to their students, and have looked to us to provide clarity on steps they can take to ensure every student is comfortable in an environment free of discrimination and with the opportunity to thrive," blogs by Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, and Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Legal Fight

The administration is banking its legal fight with North Carolina on a federal court decision in Richmond, Va that favors a transgender student who was born female and wants to use boy's restrooms in his school.

White House had called North Carolina's law "mean-spirited," adding federal agencies were continuing a review of the federal states policies on the treatment of transgender people while the administration waged its legal battle with the state.

Obama took the gavel in condemning the law in a news conference in London last month, saying it was partly the result of politics and "emotions" that people had on the issue.

"In respecting the equal rights of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, whether they're transgender or gay or lesbian it's very important for us not to send signals that anybody is treated differently," he said.

Louisville, KY High School Principal Thomas Aberli viewed the letter a good guidance for administrators across country that are trying to determine the best way to establish safe and inclusive schools.

"What you don't do is go and tell a kid, 'You know, there is something so freakishly different about you that you make other people uncomfortable, so we're going to make you do something different'," said Mr. Aberli admitting that he has six transgender children in his school.

"It's really just a nonissue in our school." he added.