Transgender school plan generates GOP backlash

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Education has generated a GOP backlash and complaints of “social engineering” by recommending that public schools adopt transgender-friendly policies but refrain from unilaterally telling parents if students identify with a gender they didn’t have at birth.

A House appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday stripped from a budget bill all travel and per-diem funding for the Democrat-dominated State Board of Education, a move the Republican chairman called “a message” to members who will consider the draft recommendation on May 10.

The amendment, approved in a party-line vote, came one day after House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, blasted the Education Department’s draft guidance memorandum as “a poorly written and poorly thought-out proposal that takes away the rights of parents and upsets the privacy and safety of Michigan’s children.”

The proposal suggests school staff around Michigan address transgender students by their chosen names and corresponding “he” or “she” pronouns, allow them to use bathrooms and locker rooms in accordance with their stated gender identity and let them participate in corresponding sports programs.

The recommendations are part of a larger document promoting inclusive school policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.

Rep. Phil Potvin, a Cadillac Republican who pushed to strip travel funding for Board of Education members, said he was primarily concerned that the board and state department did not tell legislators about the proposal until this week. A public comment period runs through April 11.

“To have them fail to communicate this to us? Wow,” Potvin said.

Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit, fought the committee amendment and later accused Potvin of injecting “his personal views” into the appropriations process.

“They are an elected body, they’re not paid, and they don’t have staff,” Banks said of State Board of Education members.

The recommendations were developed after school districts asked the state “for guidance on how to address circumstances where transgender students and their parents express how the students were being marginalized, excluded, and discriminated against,” said Michigan Department of Education spokesman Martin Ackley.

The recommendations, if approved, would not be mandatory. Rather, “local school districts each would decide to do what they believe is appropriate and helpful for all of their students,” Ackley explained.

Privacy vs. parental rights

The draft guidance suggests school staff use a student’s legal name when contacting parents unless the student or parent has specified otherwise.

Transgender and gender non-conforming students “have the right to decide when, with whom and to what extent to share private information,” according to the document.

Cotter and other state lawmakers voiced concerns over that recommendation.

“Parents do not appreciate being cut out of their children’s important, life-changing decisions, and they will make their voices heard in Lansing,” he said Wednesday. “The Board of Education may have tried to push parents out of the schools, but they are going to find out just how important parental involvement is during their public comment.”

But community advocates say the language is appropriate because transgender students who have not come “out of the closet” could face abuse or retaliation at home.

School staff should talk to students about their home life before telling parents about a gender identity change, said Jay Kaplan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“It’s not about keeping secrets from parents. You just have to be very careful and at least have the conversation with the student to make sure this would not harm them,” Kaplan said.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, in a Tuesday speech on the Senate floor, argued that the policy recommendations would force teachers to “monitor who is going into which bathroom” rather than focus on “core” teaching activities. He called the proposal “social engineering.”

“It is time to take a stand against further encroachment and erosion of the values that made us an exceptional nation,” he said.

Bathroom ideas stir debate

Bathroom and locker room policies for transgender people have become a central issue in the national debate over non-discrimination policies.

The gay rights movement suffered a setback in November when Houston voters rejected an equal rights ordinance after opponents ran television ads suggesting sexual predators would abuse the policy to prey on children of the opposite sex.

A Michigan woman sued Planet Fitness last year for canceling her membership after she complained about the gym’s transgender-friendly locker room policy. A Midland County Circuit Court judge dismissed the suit, but she vowed to appeal.

State Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, has criticized the Planet Fitness policy and opposes the new school guidance proposals.

“This outrageous policy forcing K-12 girls to share their bathrooms, locker rooms, or showers with boys — and hide that bizarre, radical practice from parents — not only violates parental rights but threatens the privacy, security, and comfort of our public school students,” he said in a statement.

Transgender advocates say fears surrounding inclusive bathroom or locker room policies are unfounded.

“We know that where guidelines like this are in place, there has been literally no problems with it,” said Amy Hunter, transgender advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Michigan. “It’s the transgender kids that are at risk for harassment and bullying. These guidelines actually help everybody feel safe.”

The Department of Education is recommending schools allow students to use bathrooms that have “alternative and non-stigmatizing” options, such as all-gender or single-user restrooms, but those should not be presented as the only option.

Work group sets advice

Kaplan was part of a work group that developed the guidance recommendations. It included Michigan Department of Education staff, members of the gay and transgender community, educators, administrators, school psychologists and school district attorneys.

“Many times districts have never taken the opportunity to even think about these issues,” he said. “This provides them with a template that can give them guidance.”

Kaplan said the transgender recommendations are consistent with policies adopted in other parts of the country, legal rulings and positions of the Obama administration’s U.S. departments of education and justice.

“I think it’s great because Title IX already says you cannot discriminate against students based on gender identity or the way they dress,” said Shawn Thomason, a gay volunteer with Ferndale-based Affirmations, a nonprofit that helps people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

“Back when I was in high school, I got bullied, and it’s a terrible thing. And now with Facebook, it’s even worse because you can’t escape it.”

Hunter, a transgender woman, said the state policy recommendations could help students.

“It feels degrading to have your authentic identity disregarded,” she said. “These are important things for the students’ self-esteem, their sense of self-respect, their sense of inclusion. It’s a simple fix.”

Staff Writer Shawn Lewis contributed