Good news for transgender students was hidden in the White House’s big news on sexual violence in schools and on college campuses on Tuesday. This latest breakthrough comes during an often fraught time of the school year for transgender and gender non-conforming students: prom and graduation.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education made crystal clear that discrimination against transgender students is prohibited under existing bans on sex discrimination, specifically Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The move is tremendously significant for transgender students who now know that they can file a complaint with OCR if they are experiencing discrimination at school based on their gender identity.
Don’t understand why this is such a big deal?
Look no further than Issak Wolfe, a male transgender high school student at Red Lion Area High School in Pennsylvania, whowas denied the opportunity to run for prom king by his school’s principal last April. His classmates and most of his teachers supported and respected his male gender identity, and he had received repeated assurances that his name would appear on the prom king side of the ballot. But when the ballot was released, Issak was dismayed and embarrassed to discover that he was listed as a candidate for prom queen and referred to by the female name he was assigned at birth instead of by his chosen name.
Issak later learned from administrators that the decision was made by his principal because he “didn’t feel comfortable” with Issak running for prom king.
This refusal to respect Issak’s gender identity caused him needless pain and embarrassment in front of his classmates. While he was later allowed to wear a black cap and gown at his graduation ceremony – like all of the other boys – the school continued to disrespect Issak by refusing to allow him to use his male name in the ceremony.
Tuesday was an important first step, but by no means is it the ultimate end point. OCR needs to follow this up with comprehensive guidance for schools nationwide explaining how Title IX protects transgender and gender nonconforming students from discrimination and what steps schools need to take to be in compliance with the law and their obligations to students like Issak Wolfe. And while protecting LGBT students under existing laws is important, essential work, Congress is not off the hook.
Most people would be shocked to learn that there are still no explicit protections in federal law barring discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would do just that and represents the single most important step that Congress can take to improve the lives of LGBT students in our nation’s public schools.
All students deserve the opportunity to attend school and learn free from discrimination because of who they are, and this week we’re a step closer to that goal.