Trump Is Poised to Remove Protections on Transgender Students’ Rights
WASHINGTON — President Trump could issue new guidelines as early as Wednesday to rescind anti-discrimination protections for transgender students, overruling his education secretary who had pushed to keep them in place.
“I would expect further guidance to come out on that today,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said, declining to provide specifics. Mr. Trump, he added, is “a firm believer in states’ rights.”
Mr. Spicer declined to discuss details of a rift on the issue between Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, who was adamant that the administration move quickly to reverse an order from the Obama administration that allowed transgender students to use the restroom of their gender identity.
But Mr. Spicer said during a White House news conference that Ms. DeVos was “100 percent” supportive of the president’s decision.
Ms. DeVos initially resisted signing off on the order and told President Trump that she was uncomfortable with it, according to three Republicans with direct knowledge of the internal discussions.
Mr. Sessions, who strongly opposes expanding gay, lesbian and transgender rights, fought Ms. DeVos on the issue and pressed her to relent because he could not go forward without her consent. The order must come from the Justice and Education Departments.
But Mr. Trump sided with his attorney general, these Republicans said, telling Ms. DeVos in a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday that he wanted her to drop her objections. And Ms. DeVos, faced with the choice of resigning or defying the president, has agreed to go along. The Justice Department declined to comment on Wednesday.
Though an official order from the administration was expected to be released as early as Wednesday, Mr. Sessions and Ms. DeVos were still disputing the final language.
According to a draft of the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times, the Trump administration cites continuing litigation and confusion over the Obama directives as a reason for telling schools to no longer obey them.
“School administrators, parents and students have expressed varying views on the legal issues arising in this setting,” the draft says. “They have also struggled to understand and apply the statements of policy and guidance” in the Obama orders.
The internal dissension within his administration threatens to become another distraction for Mr. Trump after a tumultuous first month in office.
In preparing to roll back transgender protections, his administration is wading into an issue that has become a cultural litmus test in the last year for liberals and conservatives.
The “bathroom debate,” as the controversy has become known, emerged as a major and divisive issue last March when North Carolina passed a bill barring transgender people from using bathrooms that do not match their biological sex, part of a broader bill eliminating anti-discrimination protections for gays.
The state’s bill, HB2, led to protests and economic boycotts in North Carolina, along with failed efforts by some state legislators to repeal the measure.
L.G.B.T. issues also became a point of attack for opponents of Ms. DeVos’s nomination last month, as Democrats questioned her about the extensive financial support that some of her relatives — part of her wealthy and politically active Michigan family — have provided to anti-L.G.B.T. causes.
Ms. DeVos distanced herself from her relatives on the issue, saying their political activities did not represent her views.
“Let me say I fully embrace equality, and I believe in the innate value of every single human being, and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination,” she said.
While the draft being circulated in the Trump administration amounts to a significant rollback of transgender protections over all, it does include language stating that schools must protect transgender students from bullying, a provision Ms. DeVos asked be included, one person with direct knowledge of the process said.
“Schools must ensure that transgender students, like all students, are able to learn in a safe environment,” the letter says in a line echoing her comments at her confirmation hearing. Ms. DeVos, who has been quietly supportive of gay rights for years, was said to have voiced her concern about the high rates of suicide among transgender students.
The dispute highlighted the degree to which transgender rights issues, which Mr. Trump initially expressed sympathy for during the campaign, continue to split Republicans even as many in the party argue it is time to move away from a focus on social issues.
Mr. Trump appears to have been swayed by conservatives in the administration who reminded him that he had promised social conservatives during the campaign to leave the question of bathroom use to the states.
But he has given conflicting signals on this and gay rights more broadly. He said last April, for instance, that he supported the rights of transgender people to “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate,” and he said that Caitlyn Jenner, perhaps the most famous transgender person in the country, could use whichever bathroom at Trump Tower she wanted. He has also called the decision legalizing same-sex marriage settled law. “And I’m fine with that,” he told CBS News after the November election.
Despite his personal views, his decisions in office have been consistently to the right on social issues. And he has shown considerable deference to the religious right, including the many religious conservatives he has named to top cabinet posts and the pledges he has made to fight for religious freedom protections and restrictions on abortion.
The Justice Department is eager to move quickly in laying out its legal position on transgender policy to avoid confusion in cases moving through the courts.
One filing deadline is coming up on Thursday in the case before the Supreme Court involving the Virginia transgender boy, Gavin Grimm. He sued the Gloucester County School Board two years ago after the board refused to allow him to use the boys’ bathroom and told him he could use a separate one in a converted janitors closet. The Obama administration had rejected that type of accommodation as unacceptable and discriminatory.
This dispute has underscored the outsized influence that Mr. Sessions, an early and ardent supporter of Mr. Trump during his campaign, is likely to exercise over domestic policy. As someone who has a long record of opposing efforts to broaden federal protections on a range of matters under his purview — immigration, voting rights and gay rights, for example — he has moved quickly to set the Justice Department on a strikingly different course than his predecessors in the Obama administration.