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Georgia joins the bathroom gender battle

Georgia State graduate student Jordan Forest. Photo Submitted by Jordan Forest

On Aug. 20, Georgia joined 22 other states in the fight against transgender students who want to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. A week later, a U.S. District judge ruled in their favor.

Back in May 2016, the Federal Department of Justice and Education released a directive to all public schools around the nation requiring them to allow all their transgender students to use the bathroom that matches the gender they identify with.

The documents released by the federal government stated their purpose was to inform all public institutions, which received federal dollars of their “ legal duties” pertaining to school policies of transgender individuals

Georgia State graduate student Jordan Forest.  Photo Submitted by Jordan Forest
Georgia State graduate student Jordan Forest.
Photo Submitted by Jordan Forest

Jordan Forrest Miller, a Georgia State grad student who identifies as a non-binary transmasculine person, said all schools should offer as many restroom options as possible, whether they receive federal funding or not.

“[President] Obama is setting a good precedent with his directive,” Miller said. “As People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms (PISSAR) and other organizations doing work at the intersection of trans and disability activism advocate, having safe and accessible restrooms benefits many marginalized populations.”

Government papers revealed that the directive came as an explanation of Title IX, a 1972 federal law which prohibits sex-based discrimination “in any federally funded education program or activity”.

Multiple states reacted to President Barack Obama’s administration’s directive, saying it was an attempt to change the law. By July 8, the federal government was facing a civil action lawsuit by 23 states, including Georgia and North Carolina, which accused the government of overstepping its authority.


States Win

On Monday, Aug. 22, as thousands of students returned to school desks, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled against the government’s directive, giving the states a temporary victory.

The Texas judge said Title IX defines sex as “the biological and anatomical differences between male and females students as determined at their birth.”

In a statement released right after the ruling, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens expressed gratitude on the judge’s halt of the directive.

“We are pleased that the federal court agrees that the guidance letter is yet another example of the President’s unconstitutional overreach. The Constitution gives only Congress the power to write and rewrite laws. Threatening to withhold taxpayer dollars from schools if they don’t comply with this mandate is unconstitutional. I will continue to defend the Constitution on behalf of Georgians,” he said in the statement.

The Signal reached out to the Attorney General’s office but received no response before press time.

Chanel Haley, Transgender Inclusion Organizer for Georgia Equality. Photo Submitted by Chanel Haley
Chanel Haley, Transgender Inclusion Organizer for Georgia Equality.
Photo Submitted by Chanel Haley

Chanel Haley, transgender inclusion organizer for Georgia Equality, an LGBT advocacy organization, said the bathroom debate remains because of the ambiguous definition of sex in Title IX.

“It gets tricky because the federal government has not defined sex to include gender identities,” she said. “However, federal agencies have [included gender identification in their definition of sex] and they get their powers from Congress.”

Haley said within the state of Georgia, Atlanta is the only city that has issued ordinances to protect the rights of transgender students. She said Georgia has no law on whether trans students should use the bathroom of their sex of birth, and thus institutions have been left to make that decision.

“[After the ruling] there’s definitely a setup for bullying, not even talking about the transgender situation,” Haley said. “Title IX is most importantly for the safety of children.”

Miller said the biggest challenge for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals is safety and homelessness, especially for people of color.

“There are many anti-racist organizations doing great work in and around Atlanta, such as Southerners on New Ground, SNaP COalition, and the Trans Housing Atlanta Project.”

On Aug. 8, Georgia Equality along with four other advocacy groups, Lambda Legal, Anti-Defamation League, Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of Atlanta, launched a new program for the transgender community. The Georgia Transgender Students Rights Watch is a resource for monitoring discrimination against transgender students.

According to Haley, the program has no legal power to pursue the incidents reported but will serve to support transgender students and their parents by speaking out about their experience.

Jesse McNulty, a founding member of the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, said the purpose behind this new tool is to record the issues that transgender students are facing and provide them with the resources to seek help. It is designed for gender non-conforming students as well as trans students.

“In my 20 years of teaching [at public schools], I have seen plenty of students [who had] chosen names and pronouns, and [those pronouns] were ignored or [students] would refuse to use them at all,” McNulty said.

He said that often times teachers were the ones to refuse to use the name which students identified with, and also “outed the students’ trans status”, by saying things like, “he used to be a she.”

McNulty said he’s seen varying reactions to transgender students from different public school counties. Some have denied students access to the bathroom they wanted to use, and instead had them use a gender neutral bathroom.


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