Why Oppressing Transgender Students Is An Attack On Public Education

Jeff Bryant

It didn’t take long for conservatives to turn their attack on the rights of transgender students into an attack on another favorite target of theirs: public schools.

In the pages of the conservative journal National Review, the latest screed declares, “The Obama administration just destroyed the traditional American public school.”

First, it’s not hard to miss the dog whistle language in this piece, primarily, using “traditional” as a code word for white, straight and Christian and posing as a victim while arguing for “the right” to discriminate against a vulnerable minority.

Nevertheless, the target of conservative ire is the recent joint announcement from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education that public schools must allow transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

As an article in Education Week explains, “Amid an escalating legal battle with the state of North Carolina that has thrust that state’s schools into the center of a fight over transgender rights, the letter to the nation’s roughly 14,000 school districts made clear the administration’s position that restricting transgender students’ access to restrooms and locker rooms is discriminatory and could put federal funding at risk.”

Conservative politicians and overly cautious intellectuals are accusing the Obama administration of “overreach” and “being too hasty” in issuing this directive. But many public schools had already been steadily working at ways to accommodate transgender students well before North Carolina started its attack on transgender rights and conservatives around the country gleefully piled on.

Obama’s directive, rather than sparking a new firestorm, merely reinforces what traditional (for real) public schools are meant to ensure all along. And that’s what conservatives hate most.

What Schools Are Already Doing

“Many schools already accommodate transgender students,” another Education Week article reports.

As Evie Blad explains, the furious response to the Obama administration’s guidance on treatment of transgender students “made it seem as if the directions came with no warning or precedent … But followers of school law and transgender student advocacy will tell you that the federal agency already enforced this interpretation in the past and that many schools were already making such accommodations.”

Blad spotlights 14 states with nondiscrimination laws and policies that include gender identity. But numerous local districts and local school districts have also acted to ensure transgender students feel welcome in schools.

In Tampa, Florida, a local news outlet reports, public schools are already addressing transgender equity measures, not only in bathrooms and locker rooms, but also in anti-harassment policy and school proms.

Even in North Carolina – in the state’s largest school district, Wake County – “transgender students are able to use the bathrooms that match their gender identities in some instances,” a local news source reports.

But as EdWeek’s Blad cautions, the fact that some states and school districts are already treating transgender students with dignity is “not to say that it doesn’t matter that the Obama administration issued these instructions.”

An Attack On Rights From The Right

President Obama is not instigating this fight.

Well before his administration’s actions to uphold federal law, reactionaries were trying to undermine any attempts to accommodate the needs of transgender students in schools.

At one high school in Los Angeles, a new gender-neutral bathroom created by the school and supported by the students was targeted for protests from adults who apparently had no connections to the school.

As The Washington Post reports, the school’s Gay Straight Alliance led the effort to create the multi-stall, gender-neutral restroom and collected over 700 signatures in a petition drive.

The adult protesters gathered on a sidewalk across the street from the school “held signs that declared in bold yellow letters ‘Homo Sex Is Sin,'” according to the Post reporter. “Video footage shows a man dressed in all-black yelling into a loudspeaker: ‘You’re going to burn in hell.'”

Not to be intimidated, the students pelted the protesters with fruit and water bottles, and a sidewalk brawl “between high schoolers and grown-ups ensued,” according to the reporter. Law enforcement officers had to be brought in to break the melee up, and it seems the protesters have not returned and the bathroom is still intact.

In Florida, a conservative Republican candidate for State Attorney has filed a lawsuit to stop a school district from proceeding with plans to allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identities. According to a local news outlet, “The school district policy of inclusiveness based on gender identity predates the federal directive.”

In Fort Worth, Texas, the state’s lieutenant governor used the Obama administration’s directive as a prop to go after the school district’s already established policy on accommodating transgender students. “Some Fort Worth school trustees,” a local blogger quips, “have already as good as told the lieutenant governor to go home and deal with some real issues.”

In many of these examples, conservatives claim their actions are taken to “protect children.” Their claim is that gender-neutral bathrooms may allow predatory males to dress like women and girls assault females in the toilet. But experts looking for examples of this have found exactly zero cases.

In the meantime, while conservatives carry on their phony campaign, they pass up opportunities to take action against real threats to children. As a local columnist in the Raleigh newspaper observes, when North Carolina lawmakers had an opportunity last year to “do more to help children who’ve suffered from sexual abuse and to prevent more children from falling prey to it, they showed little interest.”

Conservatives Hate What Public Schools Do

Rather than protecting innocent children or defending local schools from federal overreach, what conservatives are doing is a calculated pivot to generate fear among the populace for political gain. And it’s nothing new that they have chosen public schools as the battleground. They always have.

We’ve just observed the anniversary of the Brown v Board, the landmark Supreme Court decision to dismantle the nation’s dual schools – one for whites and one for blacks – that conservatives defended to their core.

Sixty-two years after Brown, conservatives are still accusing anyone who wants to create a fully inclusive and democratic society of being engaged in a culture war. They’ve chosen public schools as the battleground because that is still one of the few places in America where the nation’s diversity comes together to engage in its most collaborative endeavor – to educate our children.

In its constantly updated Public Schooling Battle Map, the libertarian Cato Institute pinpoints where individuals and communities engaged in public education have come into conflict over issues of prejudice, discrimination, religious bigotry, education malpractice and narrow-minded ideology.

The map is littered with literally hundreds of examples where Cato finds quarrels over what to teach in schools, how to accommodate differences of opinion, and who is not being fully welcomed into the learning community. Rather than regarding these school-based conflicts as opportunities for a diverse society to come together, Cato slams public education for being “a system that forces conflict between good, but different, people.”

Cato’s preference instead is to have “school choice,” so all of us, apparently, can sequester in our gated communities and selective schools and not have to deal with “you people.”

It may be true this narrow-minded view of education would create more tranquil, efficient schools, but it would severely limit our children’s exposure to the world and leave them ill-prepared to participate in and eventually lead a democratic society.

Maybe that’s what conservatives really want, but it is that very proposition, and not Obama’s call for inclusion, that’s really an attempt to destroy the traditional American public school.

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