By Johnna Ossie, News Editor
Last Wednesday, amidst public outcry, the Trump administration removed federal guidelines which stated that transgender students have the right to use the restrooms that best align with their gender identity. Over the past two years the Obama administration had issued memos to the nation’s public schools that stated not allowing trans students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity was in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws under Title IX. The Trump administration issued a Dear Colleague letter that stated schools should ignore memos received from the Obama administration surrounding trans rights in public schools.
Newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been widely criticized, said the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights “remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools…protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, [is] not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America,” according to the Washington Post.
Many people are concerned for the safety and future of trans rights in America. Trans individuals have one of the highest murder rates, as well as the highest rates of suicide, in the LGBTQ community. So far, in 2017, there have been at least seven reported murders of transgender women. Many people are concerned that these rollbacks will have a detrimental effect on trans students’ mental health and put their lives at risk.
Sarah Holmes, USM’s Title IX coordinator, is hoping to continue to expand support for trans students, despite current attitudes and regulations coming from the federal administration.
“One of the things that’s really important from a university perspective is that legally, by policy and state law, the University of Southern Maine believes that Title IX absolutely still applies to all students,” she said, “and in particular trans students, and so we know that we have good policies, [and that] we still for the moment have really good state laws. There’s good legal precedent in Maine. The piece around bathrooms is that individual students, employees, guests on campus, should absolutely, one hundred percent of the time, be able to use the bathroom of the gender that they identify as.”
Holmes discussed that many are concerned about what will become of Title IX under Trump’s administration. She said that though they are concerned about Title IX as a whole, including where the current administration stands on sexual assault, harassment and sex discrimination, this challenge of trans rights was the first hit.
“The reversal of the Dear Colleague letter around trans students, particularly in education, was something that I think was unexpected,” Holmes said. “We probably shouldn’t have been surprised. We are all concerned about the future of Title IX under this current administration, in terms of a lot of different aspects. I think the trans piece is the first piece to really be challenged.”
Portland has responded so far with a public rally that took place one week after the Trump administration’s rollbacks on trans students rights, partly organized by former Student Body President Vice President and student activist Madison Raymond. The rally took place on the steps of City Hall, where many rallies have taken place since Trump’s inauguration in January, including a protest against Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and a stay on Syrian refugees, as well as several rallies directed at Senator Susan Collins. Another rally in support of trans rights is planned for Sunday the 4th in Monument Square.
Holmes says that USM is trying to take steps to protect and support trans students. Holmes discussed several initiatives she is hoping to spearhead, as well as the continued effort to build or reassign more gender-neutral or all-gender bathrooms on campus.
“There’s a project in the works to re-label all of our gender neutral bathrooms, or our all gender bathrooms, depending on how you want to call them and that’s something that’s still moving forward,” she said. “My understanding is that there will be a gender-neutral bathroom here in Woodbury this summer, that the construction will happen. Is it fast enough, is it enough? Absolutely not.”
Holmes discussed that this semester a change was made so that students can put the name they would like to be used on their class rosters into MaineStreet so that students do not have to worry about being “inadvertently outed” in class. Holmes also explained that the university is hoping to allow people to put the pronouns they use into demographics information on MaineStreet.
“This is especially relevant for our students who are trans identified, students who are genderqueer and gender-nonconforming, and especially students who use they/them/theirs pronouns or other sets of pronouns,” she said, “This can be a helpful thing. It’s not something that is native to the MaineStreet environment but it’s something that may be added. So, it’s [about] what are the things that we can build into our systems that communicate the right information, in the right places, to the right people so that we can do a better job of respecting people’s identities, respecting people’s names and their core values.”