David Crisp: Sorting out transgender debate

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David Crisp

One thing about state Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City: When he gets things wrong, he gets them wrong in a big way.

We all make mistakes, but rarely do we get as many things wrong in one place as Moore did in his guest opinion in the Billings Gazette on Tuesday. His first sentence, in which he describes the decrepitude of advancing age, is just about the last thing he gets right in a piece about transgender rights in public schools.

Let’s start with his second sentence, which says that increasing age helps one see issues from other points of view. That may be true for some people on some issues, but when it comes to rights for gays, lesbians and the transgender people, students are way ahead of us old fogies.

I had an openly transgender student in one of my college classes, and it was pretty clear that the most uncomfortable person in the room was me. My students took it all in stride.

In his second paragraph, Moore says that President Obama issued an executive order that dictates “that if a boy wants in the girls’ locker room with our daughters, we as parents, trustees and teachers are powerless to stop it.”

This is wrong in at least two ways: There was no executive order; the notice came in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter from the departments of Justice and Education. Second, the notice did not declare open season on girls’ locker rooms.

The letter does require that transgender students be admitted to the locker room that fits their gender identity, but it allows schools to set up facilities that respect the privacy of all students, not just transgender ones. Most of the letter consists of examples of schools that have found effective and legal ways to deal with potential conflicts.

Moore then makes three points, all of them defective. First, he says that the guidance was imposed with “no debate, no legislation, no court case.” Not true. The guidelines proceed from requirements of Title IX, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Nixon in 1972.

Title IX has been repeatedly challenged and amended in dozens of ways. But the new federal guidelines do not “add requirements to applicable law,” the “Dear Colleague” letter states.

Title IX reads, in full, “No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program receiving Federal financial assistance.” Support for Title IX was part of the 1972 Republican Party platform, and it corrected what almost everybody now agrees were terrible injustices.

It’s true that Republicans who voted for Title IX probably had no idea that it would one day be used to protect rights of transgender people, but words have consequences. When the founders said “all men are created equal,” they didn’t mean to include black men or women of any race.

But the logic of the language created an America in which equality eventually had to apply to everybody, or it would apply to nobody. If discrimination against transgender people isn’t discrimination on the basis of sex, then sex discrimination does not exist.

Moore’s second point is that “top down, centralized decisions from D.C. (or Helena) are seldom good ones when it comes to education.” The meaning of “seldom” is open to debate, but it’s clear that decisions about fundamental civil rights cannot be entrusted to local schools.

We can’t have segregated schools in Mississippi, no matter how much Mississippians may want them. And we can’t have public universities that tell women they are not fit to study law or science, as some schools did before Title IX.

Moore’s third point, after some hemming and hawing, is, “What we don’t need is a federal mandate creating a special class of student that doesn’t have to follow basic rules of a civilized society.” But the federal guidelines don’t seek to create a special class; instead, they attempt to guarantee that no special classes are singled out for discrimination. Basic rules of civilized society must apply to all.

Last and worst, Moore proposes to draft legislation for the 2017 session “opposing this foolishness and protecting the safety and security of our daughters.” This is not only bad policy but bad economics. Recent North Carolina legislation requiring people to use public restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate has cost the Charlotte, N.C., economy $285 million and 1,300 jobs so far, according to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

Granted, these are sensitive matters. The Oklahoma Legislature has called for impeachment of Obama, the U.S. attorney general and the U.S. secretary of education over this issue. Legislators argue that students have a religious right to “separate but equal” restrooms and locker rooms.

But consider this: Scientific American reports that there may be biological differences in the brains of transgender people. Research also shows that transgender youths are four times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.

“Trans people have brains that are different from males and females, a unique kind of brain,” says psychologist Antonio Guillamon.

Those who believe this is a religious issue probably also believe that God doesn’t make mistakes. If God created transgender people whose brains don’t work like those of other people, then maybe God wasn’t testing the ability of transgender people to overcome their biological inclinations. Maybe He was testing whether Christians really believe what Jesus said about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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