WASHINGTON -- Public schools must permit transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity, according to an Obama administration directive issued amid a court fight between the federal government and North Carolina.
The guidance from leaders at the departments of Education and Justice says public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.
"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive, which is being sent to school districts Friday.
In issuing the guidance, the Obama administration is wading anew into a socially divisive debate it has bluntly cast in terms of civil rights. The Justice Department on Monday sued North Carolina over a bathroom access law that it said violates the rights of transgender people, a measure that Lynch likened to policies of racial segregation and efforts to deny gay couples the right to marry.
"We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence."
The guidance does not impose any new legal requirements. But officials say it's meant to clarify expectations of school districts that receive funding from the federal government. Educators have been seeking guidance on how to comply with Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding, Education Secretary John B. King said in a statement.
"We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence," King said.
Under the guidance, schools are told that they must treat transgender students according to their chosen gender identity as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that that identity "differs from previous representations or records." There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect his or her gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even in instances when it makes others uncomfortable, according to the directive.
"As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others' discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students," the guidance says.
The administration is also releasing a separate 25-page document of questions and answers about best practices, including ways schools can make transgender students comfortable in the classroom and protect the privacy rights of all students in restrooms or locker rooms.
The move was cheered by Human Rights Campaign, a gay, lesbian and transgender civil rights organization, which called the guidelines "groundbreaking."
"This is a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people, sending a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools," HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement.
The guidance comes days after the Justice Department and North Carolina filed dueling lawsuits over a new state law that says transgender people must use public bathrooms, showers and changing rooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. The administration has said the law violates the Civil Rights Act.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
If someone tells you they are a “he”, a “she”, a “they” (which some genderqueer people opt for), use that pronoun. Some people might even refer to themselves as an “it”, but definitely avoid this unless a person has specifically asked. You do not decide a person's identity, they do, both because it’s their right and because they are the only people that can ever truly know. Respect their wishes without question.
If you really don't know, the best option is to just ask. Dancing around the subject can be irritating for a transgender person. Think of it like asking someone’s name: until you ask what it is, it’s fine for you to not know! If you’ve not had an opportunity to ask yet, “they” is a good general purpose pronoun to go for. Definitely don’t resort to “it”, “she-he”, “he-she” etc. as most people find these names horribly degrading.
When you're referring to things in the past, never say things like "when you were x gender", or "born a man/woman". Most transgender people feel like they have always been the gender they have come out to you as, but needed to come to terms with it in their own way. Instead refer to the past without referencing gender, for example, "last year", or "when you were a child".
Each person is different, so won’t want to talk about it at all, whereas some might enjoy the opportunity to discuss it. The worst thing you can do is be awkward about it; just ask them if they want to talk about it! At the same time, don’t ask questions that would be strange to ask a cis person. Transgender people and cis people should be treated the same – don’t start conversations about their bodies, for example, that wouldn't be normal to discuss with your cis friends.
Never call out a transgender person for behaviour which isn’t stereotypical for their identified gender, for example, if your trans-woman friend decides she doesn’t feel more comfortable in trousers sometimes. Gender identity is much more than just the things people do and the way they dress, but it’s not uncommon for transgender people to feel pressured into following stereotypes to “prove” themselves to their friends.
This one should be obvious, but never out someone unless they’ve made it clear they are openly transgender. It’s up to the individual to decide when they are comfortable coming out to people, and it is possible for them to be out to some people, but not others, so don’t assume that because they’ve come out to you there’s a free pass to tell everyone about it.
Although it is important you try your best to respect a person’s identity, you are only human – if you've known your friend a long time, you'll likely have a lot of habits to break, including a change of name, pronouns, etc. As long as you’re trying, transgender people normally don’t mind. Sometimes they might point out that you’ve messed up, and that’s fine. When they do, measure the tone of their voice: if they are annoyed about it, calmly say sorry and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But equally, if they seem happy, don’t make a massive deal of it.
A cross-dresser is just someone who dresses in clothes stereotypically associated with the opposite gender: cross-dressing does not imply anything about a person’s gender. Eddie Izzard, for example, is a straight cis male who loves his makeup and dresses. Don’t say a cross-dresser dresses in “women’s clothes” or “men’s clothes” – if a male likes to wear dresses that he owns, he’s wearing a man’s dress because they are his. And do not assume that a person's gender correlates with their sexuality - it doesn't.
Try to avoid the term 'transvestite' as no one knows what it means. Technically, it just means 'cross-dresser', but it has been misused for a while now. 'Sex' is what body you have whereas 'gender' refers to a person’s identity. Other than the fact it is fairly common for a person’s gender to match their sex ('cis'), the two things are otherwise completely unrelated. 'Genderqueer' is a broad term that covers people that don’t fit into the stereotypical gender binary – that may be because they don’t feel they have a gender at all, they feel that they fit into another, third, gender or that they flit between those options, making them 'genderfluid'. 'Transgender' is someone who identifies with a gender other than their birth-assigned sex. A 'Transsexual' is someone who has physically changed their sex.
If you see someone out in public and you can’t figure out what gender they are, just don’t worry about it! Definitely don’t have a loud conversation discussing what “they might be”, and absolutely don’t try to peek under their skirt or into their shirt to see what 'parts' they’ve got. Yes, some transgender people really do have to put up with that sort of thing.