Sweeping declarations that challenge the status quo rarely go over well in this country. Change, even for the right reasons, even to ensure the civil rights that Americans hold so dear, rarely comes easily.
So it is with the Obama administration’s directive to every public school district in the country Friday about how transgender students should be treated – or else.
In a strongly worded letter, Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity, not require them to bathrooms that match their gender at birth or single-stall bathrooms when other students aren’t required to do the same.
The directive doesn’t carry the force of law, but it carries the fear of decimated budgets. Schools that don’t comply could lose billions in federal education funding. Just ask North Carolina.
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The backlash, unsurprisingly, has been swift. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called it the biggest issue “since prayer was taken out of public schools.” Republicans in other Southern and Midwestern states, where bills targeting gay and transgender people have been popping up with frightening regularity, are up in arms, too. Lawsuits will surely follow.
From out here in California, it’s hard to understand what the fuss is about. A law allowing students to use bathrooms or join teams corresponding to their gender identities has been on the books since 2013. And just last week, the Assembly passed legislation requiring all single-stall bathrooms to be open to any gender.
In fact, the Obama administration distributed a list of “emerging practices,” such as installing privacy curtains in locker rooms, that are already in place in schools around the country.
But the fear of change is powerful. So is ignorance.
That’s why Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in a powerful speech last week to announce the federal government’s countersuit against North Carolina, was right to draw parallels to the racially separate-but-equal bathrooms of the Jim Crow era.
No matter what happens in court, the Obama administration was right to act. This is about more than bathrooms. It’s about guaranteeing civil rights and encouraging acceptance for yet another group of Americans that has waited far too long for both.