Transgender students' rights on campus questioned following national debate

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - 6:26pm

Amid national controversy over transgender rights, local and University of Michigan policies have moved toward a greater accommodation of transgender students, specifically the right to choose which restroom they prefer to use — despite the issue becoming controversial in state legislature.

The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released joint guidance Friday to educators, aimed at fighting discrimination based on sex and particularly highlighting the protection of transgender students.

The guidance tells school administrations they must treat students consistently with their gender identity after being informed that the student is transgender, aimed at preventing bullying and discrimination of transgender students.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, any school receiving federal money is prohibited from discriminating against students based on sex, which is interpreted to include transgender students. The recent guidance reaffirms this policy, warning educators against Title IX violations.

U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. stated in a press release that all students — including transgender students — should be able to learn in a safe environment, as mandated by Title IX.

“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” King said in a statement. “This guidance further clarifies what we’ve said repeatedly — that gender identity is protected under Title IX. Educators want to do the right thing for students, and many have reached out to us for guidance on how to follow the law.”

LGBT Michigan president Emily Kaufman, an LSA junior and a transgender woman, said she believes the Obama administration has recently taken important steps to help protect the transgender community.

“Generally, what the Obama administration has been saying in the past few weeks is that trans lives matter and that we are people,” she said. “There are all these negative stereotypes, so by the Obama administration doing these things, it will protect the most marginalized people, and it is really a big step forward.”

The Obama administration’s announcement follows recent controversy over a law passed in North Carolina, referred to as the North Carolina “bathroom bill,” which prohibits transgender people from using restrooms or locker rooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificates.

The bill has drawn heavy criticism from civil liberties groups, LGBTQ advocates and major businesses. Since its passage, several performers including Bruce Springsteen, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas and the bands Pearl Jam and Boston cancelled concerts in North Carolina as a demonstration of protest protest. The bill additionally garnered praise from socially conservative groups like the Family Research Council.

Most recently, the Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state of North Carolina. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the suit represents more than just a battle over bathrooms, according to a May 9 statement.  

"This is about the dignity and respect that we accord our fellow citizens and the laws we have enacted as a country to protect them and to protect us," Lynch said.

Supporters of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” claim sexual predators can take advantage of the ability to enter the bathroom of their choice to attack others. Despite this argument, studies suggest transgender individuals are more likely to be at risk while using public restrooms than those around them.

Despite the anti transgender-rights rhetoric employed by some Republican legislators in Lansing, the University of Michigan provides a variety of accommodations for transgender students, including gender-inclusive housing and gender-inclusive bathroom facilities. Gender-inclusive housing involves either a room with a private bathroom or a room in proximity to gender-inclusive bathroom facilities. Nearly all residence halls offer some sort of gender-inclusive facility. Gender inclusive facilities are open to all students who wish to use a private bathroom.

Kaufman said she was previously not permitted to use the women’s restroom facilities at the University, and often had to travel inconvenient distances to find gender-neutral facilities. However, the University has since changed that policy, and Kaufman said she no longer encounters the same restrictions.

Kaufman added that she has not had issues with the University’s policies in general, but that she believes the administration could go further in actively protecting transgender students rights.

“The University is one of the most liberal institutions in the country, so there aren’t really any problematic regulations that I’m aware of that exist anymore,” she said. “There’s more things that could be done to protect LGBT, particularly trans people, that the University could be doing.”

The University also offers a preferred name policy, which allows all students to change the name they wish to appear in the University directory. In April, Wolverines for Preferred Pronouns started a petition to additionally allow students’ preferred pronouns to appear on class rosters. As of Wednesday, the online petition has 788 signatures.

Kaufman said the University community has generally been welcoming to her, but she considers herself cis-passing — meaning, despite being a transgender woman, she appears to be a non-transgender woman — which she believes contributes to the absence of harassment that many transgender individuals encounter.

“Generally, the reactions I’ve received have been very positive, but the circles I’m in are very liberal and accepting,” she said. “Now when I interact with people they don’t know that I’m trans a lot of the time, so I don’t really deal with that transphobia. It’s a unique thing because of the way I’m perceived by people. I don’t deal with a lot of the issues that trans women deal with.”

Despite the positive campus community, Kaufman cited instances of harassment on her social media accounts, saying she has drawn hostile online attention due to her visible activism. She said she also received a plethora of negative reactions from people walking past her as she participated in a demonstration where she held a sign identifying herself as a transgender woman.

Kaufman additionally referenced a need for normalizing transgender participation in sororities to help support the idea that transgender women are just like other women. Kaufman said she attempted to rush at the University, but she did not receive any bids.

Ann Arbor Public Schools

Locally, Ann Arbor Public Schools has been working for years to ensure a safe environment for its transgender students. According to Deb Mexicotte, president of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board, the protection of students is based off of its own non-discrimination policy, which aims to protect all students from any form of discrimination.

Mexicotte said there is no specific policy directed at protecting transgender students, and the implementation of the non-discrimination policy varies from school to school. However, during Mexicotte’s tenure on the board, there have been no issues or complaints regarding the safety of transgender students that have come to her attention.

Mexicotte said she is proud of the work the district has done to ensure a positive learning environment for all students.

“One of the things I’m proud of in our community is that we try to do the right thing for our students, our staff and our community without being mandated to do so,” she said. “We are very cognizant of our role in creating that safe and welcoming educational environment.”

Mexicotte also indicated that any federal ordinance is always helpful in implementing policy and ensuring student protection, but that it’s yet to be determined whether or not the recent announcement will lead to any policy changes or new policy in AAPS.

The State of Michigan

On a state level, the battle for transgender rights has been much more contentious. The state legislature is currently under Republican control and Democrats complain of an inability to pass legislation they view as vital.

A proposed guidance issued by the Michigan Department of Education in February, advising schools to take action toward protecting LGBTQ students — particularly by highlighting the need to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice — drew ire from Republican legislators such as state Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R–Canton).

“Our schools, our teachers, our administrators are on the frontline of a culture war in our society, and as their proponents push their social agenda into our classrooms, the quality of education our children receives suffers,” Colbeck proclaimed on the Senate floor on March 22, in response to a directive from the Michigan Board of Education calling for transgender students to be given access to the bathroom of their identity.

“Over 50 percent of our third graders can’t read, math proficiency for some schools hovers in the teens, and now we have these new guidelines that further divert our educators from their core mission — that of teaching our kids. It is time to take a stand against this social engineering,” Colbeck added.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said it is highly unlikely for the state to pass any legislation aimed at fighting discrimination against transgender individuals. He went on to reference a State Sen. Tom Casperson (R–Escanaba) who threatened to introduce a bill similar to the North Carolina bathroom bill, but it never actually came to fruition.

Because of this, Irwin said environment protections for students must come from individual districts.

“I think the progress is going to have to be school by school and community by community, rather than through the state legislature,” he said. “I don’t anticipate the state legislature doing something positive.”

In the state of Michigan, transgender students in K-12 schooling reported rates of harassment at 84 percent, physical assault at 44 percent and sexual violence at 10 percent. Nine percent of the reported harassment was so severe that it led the individual to drop out of K-12 or higher education schooling, according to a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Irwin does hope to see legislation addressing other concerns of transgender individuals, including a push to have hormone drugs used by people in transition covered by Medicaid and allowing transgender individuals to change the gender that appears on their state identification, both of which he cited as key issues for the transgender community.

Currently in Michigan, 19 percent of transgender individuals have been refused medical care due to their gender identity/expression, and 35 percent reported postponed needed medical care when they were sick or injured due to discrimination, according to the NCTE and the NGLTF.

Kaufman also mentioned a general need in the transgender community for the protection of transgender women, specifically transgender women of color. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ most recent report, nearly 90 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims in 2013 were people of color, with 72 percent being transgender women and 67 percent transgender women of color.

Kaufman said any attempt to better the lives of these individuals is vital.

“Getting these women the resources they need and recognizing all the shit they have to deal with and trying to improve their lives in any way is very important,” Kaufman said.