BY PAUL SCHINDLER | With the Trump administration’s reversal last week on the federal government posture toward schools allowing transgender youth to access bathrooms appropriate for their gender identity, the new president has taken aim at the most vulnerable portion of the LGBTQ community — in fact, one of the most marginalized segments of American society.
Without acceptance and social support, transgender youth face some of the gravest social risks confronting any young people in the US, including a rate of attempted suicide that is a multiple of that among gay and lesbian youth not to mention youth overall. More than 40 percent of transgender adults report having attempted suicide, nine-tenths of them before the age of 25.
But as a wide range of advocates for trans youth noted last week in a press call responding to the Trump action, transgender youth who enjoy acceptance in their homes and are able to participate in educational and social activities with dignity and on an equal footing perform on par with their cisgender peers. According to Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, numerous studies have shown that policies in which the rights and dignity of transgender students are respected lead to outcomes where they have “exactly the same psychological profile” as other teenagers.
John Austin, a former chair of the State Board of Education in Michigan, the home state of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, described the board’s success in implementing policies ensuring a “supportive environment” for 150,000 LGBTQ students. “With a supportive environment,” he said, “transgender kids have no issues that other teenagers don’t have.”
We’re talking about kids here — and creating a suitable environment for them to pursue a full life with all the opportunities their talents ought to afford them. That’s why this bathroom debate is so important; as Chase Strangio — a transgender attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union working on high school senior Gavin Grimm’s challenge to his Virginia school’s bar on him using the boys’ room — the Grimm case “is about so much more than restrooms. Can Gavin and similar kids participate in public life?”
Trump, in the first month of his presidency, has elected to trade away that chance at dignity and positive outcomes for the nation’s transgender youth in exchange for the appeasement of the hard right base that made his improbable journey to the White House successful. Multiple news sources report that DeVos was not prepared to back off of the student bathroom access policy developed late in Barack Obama’s second term — some are characterizing her as having some sympathies for LGBTQ rights — but that the president was swayed by his attorney general, the troglodyte former Alabama senator, Jeff Sessions, who is a fierce opponent of the queer community.
Sessions’ victory on the transgender rights issue came less than a month after a sure disappointment over the White House announcing the president would not back off of Obama’s 2014 executive order requiring contractors doing business with the federal government to offer their LGBTQ employees nondiscrimination protections.
Trump’s reluctance to buck the LGBTQ community at that moment fed into a spurious mainstream media narrative that he is somehow “better” on queer rights than past Republican presidents or those GOP opponents he faced in last year’s primary. The new president’s enlightenment on this score is supposedly informed by his years as a Manhattanite as well as the positive influence of his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a senior White House advisor. The most reductive element in this narrative — repeated habitually by the New York Times — is Trump’s statement during the campaign that Caitlyn Jenner was welcome to use any bathroom she wished at Trump Tower. In fact, public accommodations law in New York City requires Trump Tower to maintain that policy, but Times reporters apparently don’t wish to go that far into the policy weeds.
The White House excuse for stabbing trans kids in the back is that the question is a states’ rights issue — despite federal law that requires nondiscrimination by schools receiving federal dollars.
It’s pretty clear now that the big deal made about Trump not rescinding the contractor policy — after several days of suspiciously convenient reporting that it was about to do so — was aimed at feeding the mainstream media’s credulous stories about the president’s evolved views. Then, in a bone thrown to the bigots who are Sessions’ natural constituency, the menace of young kids going to the bathroom according to the gender identity fundamental to their personhood was extinguished.
In my book, Trump was unwilling to take on the LGBTQ community in the full frontal assault that nixing the contractor order would have required, but was content placating his homophobic, transphobic enthusiasts by peeling off a small portion of our community and targeting them.
That is ugly and it is cowardly. But coming from Donald Trump, it is, unfortunately, not really surprising.
But don’t think that Jeff Sessions or Trump’s equally LGBTQ-hostile vice president, Mike Pence, will stop there. The right is expecting at least one more big payoff regarding our community — the institutionalization of religious opt-outs from those nondiscrimination protections our community currently enjoys.
That could come in some type of modification of the contractor executive order, in the noxious First Amendment Defense Act currently before Congress, or in some other form. The key thing to remember is that in recognizing a federal right to a “conscience” exemption, the Trump administration and Congress could big-foot not only existing federal protections, but state and local guarantees as well.
We need to be vigilant against this danger, even as we acknowledge that the first casualties in the emerging battle are our transgender youth.