Obama Directive On School Bathrooms Met With Mixed Reactions
Responses to progress on transgender rights vary, sometimes even within schools
In a landmark push for LGBT equality, President Barack Obama’s administration called on every public school district in the country on Friday to let students use the bathroom that matches their gender identity or face loss of federal funds, and potentially lawsuits. This comes on the heels of the nationwide controversy surrounding North Carolina’s HB 2, which requires transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their sex at birth.
Reactions on social media to the move were impassioned and varied. Even within the same state or school district, for every educator or administrator championing inclusivity and compassion on the matter, there is another challenging such directives as unsafe, sacrilegious, or as unwanted government overreach. But it’s students who are caught in the middle.
Sage Burge, a 17-year-old trans senior living in Lexington, Kentucky, says he’s seen positive and negative reactions to the edict inside his school, Paul Dunbar High School. On Facebook, Burge recently posted a screenshot from the Instagram account of the school’s P.E. teacher, Jason Duncan, from May 11. “Jesus made you and me in his image,” the teacher’s post reads. “You are either a man or a women [sic]. There is no transgender. There is no in between.”
The teacher’s Instagram account is private—his bio reads “Romans 1:16”—but Burge told Vocativ that the health teacher preaches “about God in class all the time and allows students to follow him on his personal social media accounts.” Burge alerted his school’s county on Facebook about the Instagram post.
“I do understand people can have opinions. But for a teacher that follows students and allows students to follow him, he should not be allowed to post these kinds of things where trans or nonbinary or anyone that doesn’t follow the gender norms of man and woman can see,” Burge wrote in a post on his school district’s Facebook page.
That wasn’t Burge’s only related interaction with the teacher. Back in September, Burge said that he was leaving the gym to go to the bathroom to change one day when the following incident occurred:
“When I was leaving [Duncan] said ‘ladies stay here,’ because he didn’t know me yet. When I came back my friend told me they told him that I’m a guy, and to use guy pronouns when speaking to or about me, and he pulled out his cross necklace and walked away without another word.”
The PE teacher didn’t respond to Vocativ’s request to confirm Burge’s story.
While such anecdotes are often of a piece with our expectations for small Southern towns resistant to change, the Lexington health teacher may be an outlier. Burge says if other teachers feel the same way about transgender identity, he never hears about it. “None of the other teachers really express their personal beliefs to students because they’re not supposed to,” he said.
And the rest of the school staff has been supportive. When Burge realized he wasn’t comfortable using the boys or girls bathroom during his transition, he says he asked the principal, Betsy Rains, if he could use the staff bathroom instead, at least until he began hormone replacement therapy in a few months. Rains immediately said yes.
“She told me that because I was uncomfortable with the other restrooms, I had permission to use the staff restrooms,” Burge told Vocativ. “She’s always been more than happy to help with whatever I’ve needed and with my friends. She’s always super helpful when people need it.”
A spokesperson for the Fayette County School Board, Lisa Deffendall, told Vocativ the county is “already in compliance” with Obama’s directive to let students use the bathrooms that match their identity. The school also did not respond to requests for comment.
This patchwork of support seems to mirror the reactions that are cropping up elsewhere. In Texas, Port Neches-Groves Superintendent Rodney Cavness told local news that Obama’s letter would not be well received, using a frequently cited conservative point of opposition to the law—that it’s unsafe.
“He ain’t my President and he can’t tell me what to do. That letter is going straight to the paper shredder. I have 5 daughters myself and I have 2,500 girls in my protection. Their moms and dads expect me to protect them. And that is what I am going to do.”
Still, he said as far as following the directive. “There are accommodations that can be made short of this.”
In Nashville, another educator came out to say the danger angle is unfounded. “This is completely blown out of proportion by the far right,” Erik Huth, head of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, told Vocativ. “There is no evidence to suggest that denying transgender children the right to access a restroom aligned with their gender identity creates a danger for other students. However, denying access to restrooms creates hardships transgender students. All of the restroom-related violence I have ever heard of in public schools has been committed by those of one biological sex on others of the same biological sex.”
Still, there are policies, and there is the real-world practice of teachers in classrooms. Students took to Twitter to report conversations in their schools and classes about transgender rights. One student, Rebecca, wrote that, in order to kick off a conversation about transgender rights, her teacher wrote on the board, “Mr. Jenkins now identifies as a woman?”
my teacher wrote this on the board and asked our class about transgenders using the bathroom they identify with – pic.twitter.com/n4C9BRHTEv
— Rebecca (@toeptx) May 13, 2016
– and everyone in the class began agreeing with him and saying they shouldn’t be allowed to. So I called them out. — Rebecca (@toeptx) May 13, 2016
He said I was trying to “impose my beliefs on others” bc I said half the class was bigots. Then he asked me who I thought was a bigot –
— Rebecca (@toeptx) May 13, 2016
– and I called him out. He’s been trying to pull this shit all year. I’m furious. — Rebecca (@toeptx) May 13, 2016
Rebecca then debates whether to simply walk out or not, because, after all, she’s in math class, and “What does this even have to do with math?”
Sharise Johnson, the managing director for national communications and engagement at Teach For America, told Vocativ in an email that the organization strongly supports safe spaces for all students, especially transgendered ones. “We are deeply concerned and disappointed any time members of our community feel unsafe or marginalized,” she wrote. “In this moment, we particularly want to affirm our commitment to creating safe and welcoming classrooms and schools for members of the LGBTQ community.”
In spite of the backlash and resistance and the actions of teachers such as Jason Duncan, students like Sage Burge say they still feel lucky to have support at all in such a climate. “It could most certainly be a lot worse,” Burge told Vocativ. “I’d say I’m one of the luckiest trans high school students to have the support at school and in my family that I do.”