By Tamara Juarez, September 2016 Issue.
As summer comes to a close, and as the academic year approaches, the local .chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has made it their mission to educate school districts and transgender students about the new federal guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice.
According to the directive, transgender students who attend public school possess full rights under Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination, including the freedom to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity, in educational programs receiving federal funding. The guidance makes clear that both federal agencies treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX.
Since the announcement in May, GLSEN has reached out to numerous schools across the Valley to ensure teachers and administrators have the tools and training necessary to create a safe and welcoming environment for all students.
According to Sean Nonnenmacher, GLSEN’s student organizing coordinator, it’s important to increase awareness of LGBTQ issues and assist faculty members in promoting inclusivity inside the classroom.
“GLSEN Phoenix has several touch points with schools throughout the year,” Nonnenmacher said. “We do student-organizing work, which allows us to communicate and advise clubs that support LGBT students, such as the Gay Straight Alliance. We also meet with principles, counselors and the professional-development sphere to offer workshops and training as to how they can best support LGBT students.”
When the federal government issued the recommendations, Nonnenmacher said, GLSEN provided schools with regular updates and helpful guides to help them understand and implement nondiscriminatory practices. Once classes are back in session, GLSEN intends to continue helping transgender students find comfort and acceptance within their academic setting, despite opposition from state officials.
Within Arizona, only a handful of cities have passed anti-discrimination laws for sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, including Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tucson, Tempe, Flagstaff and Chandler.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, only 20 states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while such states as North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas hold limited laws that protect sexual minorities.
As a response to national dispute regarding transgender policies, and in the wake of North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill, the federal government issued guidance to public schools, which explained what the schools should do in order to support transgender students.
Danny Hernandez, GLSEN’s education and policy coordinator, described the recommendations as a list of clarifications.
“In the past, the Department of Education was very unclear about transgender policies. It was always just a court case here and a court case there, with more and more rights being recognized in some states,” Hernandez said. “So in May, the government put out a ‘Dear Colleague Letter,’ which stated that transgender students have the same rights as everyone else … It wasn’t actually a mandate, nothing was voted on, but there has been such a high number of court cases representing transgender students that the government saw it necessary to put out this letter.”
The Obama Administration’s guidance is not legally binding but threatens violators with loss of federal funding.
According to the letter, public school must allow transgender students to express their gender identity without subjecting them to unequal treatment or exclusion:
• Schools must treat students consistent with their asserted gender identity.
• Schools may not require a doctor’s note, diagnosis or other official documentation of gender transition.
• Schools must provide equal access to all educational programs
• Schools must provide access to sex-segregated school facilities, including restrooms and locker rooms, consistent with a student’s gender identity.
• Schools may not force a student to use a single occupancy restroom, although a school may provide single occupancy restrooms as an option to students seeking additional privacy
• School staff must use a student’s preferred name or gender pronoun and must respect a student’s privacy regarding school records. (Read the letter in its entirety here.)
Immediately after the recommendations were issued, dozens of states showed their support or discontent toward the letter, dubbing it a civil rights triumph or an overreach of federal power. Arizona is one of 11 states seeking to gain the legal power to overturn or ignore the recommendations.
Nonnenmacher attributes the Arizona’s reluctance to several factors, including strong opposition by community members and government officials, but believes schools districts are capable of upholding the federal guidance.
“Many schools already do an excellent job of supporting LGBT students,” he said. “Of course there are some that are resistant ... there are parents, community member and other people who are very starkly opposed to supporting transgender students, but part of these recommendations also dictate that schools must protect their students regardless of what parents or the community has to say ... it’s their responsibility.”
Last year, GLSEN held more than 40 different workshops and assisted some of the biggest school districts in the state, including the Scottsdale Unified School District, Tempe Union High School District, Glendale Union High School District, Gilbert Public Schools, Mesa Public Schools and Paradise Valley Unified School District.
Undeterred by Arizona’s political stance, many school districts are determined to provide students with a safe environment where they can attend classes without being invalidated or discriminated against.
Drew Davis, Paradise Valley Unified School District’s director of student services, said he is proud of his school district’s fight for transgender and minority rights.
“I believe a point of pride in PV Schools is the ongoing work of the district in providing equity and access to our very diverse student population,” he said. “The District Equity Leadership Team of Advisors, or DELTA, is a stakeholder group of administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, and students dedicated to the work of equity in the district. DELTA’s goal, and the first goal of equity established by the team in our district, is to create positive relationships among staff, school, and community members at school buildings characterized by acceptance, value and respect. By focusing on these relationships, we create safe, welcoming school climates for all of our students and the diverse cultures, ethnicities, and identities they bring to our buildings.”
Like Davis, Nonnenmacher said he holds a positive view of the future after the passing of the new recommendations.
“We are very optimistic and hopeful that this will help continue the discussion around transgender issues,” Nonnenmacher said. “School must learn to be supportive for all individuals, including transgender students.”
To find our more about GLSEN Phoenix, including information on professional development for educators and resources on transgender rights, visit
Looking for information on starting a Gay-Straight Alliance at your school this year? Check out GLSEN’s 10 Steps To Starting a GSA or Similar Student Club at phoenix.outvoices.us/a-is-for-alliance.
Or, to invite GLSEN to your school or set up a meeting, email [email protected].