Department of Education Will No Longer Protect Trans Students Denied Bathroom Access

The Department of Education has announced that it no longer intends to pursue civil rights complaints filed by transgender students who are denied access to appropriate restrooms.

The agency, headed by Trump appointee Betsy DeVos, argues that gender identity is not covered by Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education facilities that receive public funding. But this interpretation runs contrary to the beliefs of many trans people, as well as legal scholars and several courts.

And this isn’t the first time that the Department of Education has denied trans people of all ages their full civil rights, and compromise their ability to participate freely in society. Such efforts are particularly worrisome to a generation of trans kids who grew up during the Obama administration, when progress on their rights was moving forward.

The fixation on trans people and bathrooms is, quite frankly, puzzling to most of us — really, all we want to do is pee. But since the issue keeps coming up in the form of bathroom bills and cases like this one, it’s worth taking a closer look.

When trans men and women transition, they usually want to use the accommodations that align with their gender — whether those be specifically gendered restrooms or all-gender facilities — for a variety of reasons, ranging from personal safety to inclusion.

Some people seem convinced that allowing trans people to use the bathroom is “dangerous,” and they use harmful rhetoric to suggest that women’s bathrooms are particularly vulnerable to “men in dresses” who lurk within and prey on cis women and children. This couldn’t be further from the truth: Trans women are women, not men in dresses, and rapists and child molesters aren’t stopped by a sign that says “cis women only.”

But we do know that trans people are at very high risk of being harassed — and sometimes assaulted — in bathrooms. Nine percent of respondents to a Williams Institute survey in 2013 said they had been assaulted in the bathroom, and most had been harassed. Making a big production out of who is using a restroom can make it much more dangerous. Some trans people opt to avoid public restrooms — partially or totally — because they feel unsafe.

If you’ve ever held it through the end of a movie or because your plane is about to land, you know how uncomfortable it is to need to use the restroom and not be able to. Now imagine being a 16-year-old kid who needs to pee in first period, but can’t, because there’s no accessible restroom. Should you try to hold it all day? Go home early?

A number of survey respondents reported health problems, including bladder and kidney infections, caused by trying to avoid the bathroom. Others deliberately withheld fluids, which can be very dangerous. Six percent had visited doctors with problems caused by restroom avoidance.

Trans people deserve to be able to use the bathroom like anyone else. If schools have problems with assault or harassment in restrooms, they need to address a culture problem — one that doesn’t lie with trans students. Most reasonable users of public restrooms want to get in, do their business and get out. They’re not peeping under stall doors or grabbing people’s genitals.

The Department of Education has just advised trans students that their safety isn’t important, opening up the door to further harassment. The change in policy has also signaled to the trans community at large that the entities charged with protecting us will no longer come to our defense.