DeVos Meets with LGBT Groups Over Trans Student Protections

by Chris Johnson, Washington Blade

Representatives from a trio of LGBT organizations and families with transgender kids met Wednesday with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the aftermath of the Justice and Education Departments revoking Obama-era guidance assuring transgender students access to the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.

Mara Keisling, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality, said the meeting came about as a result of the Trump administration rescinding the guidance, which informed discriminating against transgender students would violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

"They made an arbitrary, political, ideological decision to hurt trans youth, so we wanted to talk to them about enforcing the law that they're statutorily required to enforce," Keisling said.

The meeting was set up as a result of efforts by Equality Michigan, which is the state LGBT group for DeVos' home state of Michigan and where she once served as head of the Michigan Republican Party. According to Equality Michigan, the Education Department informed the organization on Friday she had agreed to the meeting.

Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, said her organization sought out the meeting to convey the "profound negative consequences" of the withdrawal of the guidance protecting transgender students.

"We also ensured that the secretary heard from transgender students and their parents directly about the impact of discrimination and harassment at school," White said. "We wanted her to understand that these are life and death issues for transgender young people across the country and that we will not waver or compromise in our commitment to ensuring that every student, regardless of their gender identity, is provided with equal protection and opportunity to thrive."

In a statement, DeVos said she's "grateful for the opportunity" to speak with families and LGBT rights supporters "about their concerns, thoughts, fears and suggestions."

"Every school and every school leader has a moral responsibility to protect all students and ensure every child is respected and can learn in an accepting environment," DeVos said. "I remain committed to advocating for and fighting on behalf of all students. Today's meeting was compelling, moving and welcomed, and part of an ongoing dialogue with families and students throughout the country."

Discussion consisted of two consecutive meetings -- one between DeVos and transgender families, the other between DeVos and representatives from LGBT groups -- which both last about an hour each, sources familiar with the meeting said. Those in attendance at the latter meeting, according to sources, DeVos and four Education Department officials as well representatives from GLSEN, the National Center for Transgender Equality and Equality Michigan.

Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, said in a statement said LGBT groups addressed the immediate consequences of withdrawing the guidance and "ways that she might be able to mitigate the pain, fear, and confusion that decision has caused."

"Above all, we ensured that DeVos heard - directly from us - that we will not budge or compromise when it comes to the full support and protection that all of our children, including LGBTQ youth, deserve from this administration, from the Department of Education and from its Office for Civil Rights," Byard said.

The meeting, Keisling said, yielded no firm policy commitments. Nonetheless, Keisling said it was "a good first meeting" because "it's always good when people are willing to sit down and talk, when people are willing to be told that what they did was really bad."

"Right now, we're limited in what we can do with the federal government, but this was one thing we could do," Keisling said. "We could bring families, and that was really the important thing here. I think so many people were just outraged that they took a policy that had taken a decade or more to craft and do the groundwork, and then just threw it out in less a week of Attorney General Sessions being in office. He came into office and immediately started shooting at trans people, and she was only in office a couple weeks more than that."

Transgender rights supporters insist that even without an affirmative ruling from the Supreme Court, the prohibition on sex discrimination under Title IX based on legal precedent bars schools from discriminating against transgender students or denying them access to the restroom consistent with their gender identity.

According to media reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, DeVos objected to rescinding the non-discrimination guidance for transgender students before ultimately agreeing to allow it happen. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions needed her consent to move forward because the guidance was issued jointly by both their departments and President Trump had to intercede, forcing DeVos to accept the revocation of the guidance or else resign, the Times reported.

Keisling said DeVos didn't say anything about objections she had to withdrawing the guidance because the meeting wasn't focused on the process getting there, but protecting transgender students going forward.

"I've heard the rumors, too, that she was against and Sessions for it, but the bottom line is she signed," Keisling said. "He signed it, she signed it, so it doesn't really matter to me whether she wanted to sign it because she signed it."

The meeting, Keisling said, was with DeVos as opposed to Sessions or White House officials because the Obama-era guidance came from the Education Department and the Education Department would be responsible for putting it back in place.

"That's where the guidance is, that's who has to enforce Title IX and that's who allegedly cares about students," Keisling said, adding she was unsure if any effort was made for LGBT groups to meet with Sessions or LGBT groups.

None of the LGBT groups issued any notice the meeting would take place prior to the time it happened, although the Education Department did include a notice on DeVos' weekly schedule she'd met meet with "Equality Michigan leadership and parents" in a closed press meeting. After the meeting GLSEN issued a general news statement, followed by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Keisling said not issuing a public notice prior to the DeVos meeting is consistent with the practice of her organization, which she said typically doesn't promote meetings with administration officials.

"We're there to actually work done, not to have a photo op," Keisling said. "I wouldn't have wanted this to be a photo op. In fact, I probably wouldn't have gone if this was a photo op. We're not in the business of making people feel better after they do something bad, so that wasn't about it. This was about having her listen to families."

A controversial figure who's reviled by many in the LGBT community, DeVos has faced criticism before and after the time of her confirmation, encountering in her few first days in office protestors, including a gay refugee from Afghanistan turned citizen, who followed her until she entered her vehicle during a visit to a D.C. public school.

Cathy Renna, a GLSEN spokesperson, referred to DeVos' public schedule when asked why the organization issued no statement about the meeting prior to the time it took place. White said the organization has a general practice of not issuing notices for meetings.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association.This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Media Association.
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