By Rebecca Mead February 23, 2017
When historians write their accounts of the Trump era—assuming the practice of historical scholarship survives it—a small but significant portion of those chronicles will be concerned with the bewildering phenomenon of grown Republican men policing the bathroom habits of vulnerable teen-agers. With the announcement today that Trump has rescinded a civil-rights rule put in place under President Obama, providing transgender students in public schools with the right to use the bathroom of their choice, the President and his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, have scored a political victory. Voters who believe that a hazard is presented by, for example, a transgender eighth grader using the bathroom corresponding to her gender identity will be satisfied by the new policy, which states that local districts will now be at liberty to make their own policies regarding who gets to go to the bathroom where. Schools will, presumably, be able to insist that transgender students use the bathroom that is opposite to their gender identity, or—as is often proposed as a reasonable, middle-ground solution—a separate bathroom altogether, such as one intended for teachers.
Reports emerged yesterday suggesting that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s recently appointed and highly controversial Education Secretary, had misgivings about rescinding or revising the policy as it stood. A story in the Times reported that DeVos had expressed concern that rolling back the recently acquired rights of transgender students would open such students up to potential harm, and noted that she had been “quietly supportive of gay rights” for some time. According to the report, DeVos expressed her reservations to Sessions, who could not be persuaded, and sought out Trump’s support for his own position. The President reportedly told DeVos that she could get onboard or she could resign. DeVos chose to keep her job, and signed off on the new rules.
But trying to do something good—if that is, indeed, what DeVos tried to do—deserves no praise when the end result is to be complicit in something bad. The Times story noted that DeVos had expressed concerns about high rates of suicide among transgender students. She is right to be worried: the suicide rate in the transgender population is significantly higher than that in the population at large; according to an oft-cited study published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, forty per cent of transgender adults have attempted suicide.
At the same time, suicidal leanings are by no means an inevitable consequence of being transgender. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics shows that transgender youth who have received the support of their families and communities through their transitions suffer no greater rates of depression than does the general population. In other words, if trans kids and teens are not made to feel isolated—if they are not singled out as different—they have every chance of doing just fine, or at least as well as any other teen-age kid.
One good way to make sure trans kids aren’t isolated or singled out is to insure that they have the freedom to use whichever bathroom they feel comfortable using. As anyone who has ever been a kid or a teen will remember, school bathrooms are not merely places in which to answer the call of nature. They are sites of social interaction, where gossip is gossiped and confidences exchanged. To remove a student from that community is to stigmatize him or her, as Nicole Maines, a transgender advocate whose family successfully sued the state of Maine for violation of her civil rights, has eloquently argued. When she was required to use the staff bathroom, Maines wrote in Time magazine, “I was isolated and effectively classified as ‘other.’ My school and community began to acknowledge me as being different and treated me like a second-class citizen.”
Being a teen is hard enough, but being a trans teen should be no harder than usual. The new ruling fails to take account of what common humanity should acknowledge: that within a school bathroom or outside it, a transgender student is much more likely to be the victim of bullying than to be its perpetrator. If DeVos really has concerns about the safety of transgender kids, her capitulation to Sessions and Trump is all the more reprehensible. Insisting that, in rescinding the rule, the Department of Education should profess a commitment to rooting out discrimination and bullying amounts to nothing but empty words, if—as is the case—the intended point of the new rules is to enable the imposition of a particularly cruel, petty, and humiliating structural discrimination.