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Transgender Students, Athletics, Bullying: What the Equality Act Would Mean for Schools

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The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act Friday, greenlighting a bill that would amend Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add explicit federal protections for gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation to existing federal civil rights laws alongside similar protections based on race and national origin.

If it becomes law, the bill could have broad effects for public schools, touching on everything from the treatment of transgender students and bullying prevention to the rights of employees. The bill passed the house 236-173. It will almost certainly face more resistance in the Republican-led Senate. 

"Today's historic vote to pass The Equality Act in the U.S. House of Representatives is a vital step forward to ensure that the rights and livelihood of all Americans—including hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ students and educators—are protected," said Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ students.

The change could essentially moot ongoing arguments about whether Title IX protects transgender students, and whether sex protections in employment laws apply more broadly to gender identity and sexual orientation, an issue currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This is just that guarantee that no court is going to be in a guessing game about whether or not these protections exist," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, which supports the Equality Act. 

But conservative opponents say the bill would trample parents' rights in schools, leading to a recognition of sex and gender that may confuse children who are taught contradictory ideas at home. 

"Parents should have the freedom to teach their children about sexual matters at a time and in a manner of their own choosing," said Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. (The center is named for the in-laws of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.)

President Donald Trump opposes the bill for similar reasons.

"The Trump administration absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all," an administration official told NBC News. "However, this bill in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights."

Here's more about what the Equality Act would mean for schools:

Transgender Students

The Equality Act would make permanent protections for transgender students that were recognized by the Obama administration in civil rights guidance that was later rescinded by the Trump administration.

Specifically, schools would be required to honor transgender students' preferred pronouns, and names, and they would be required to protect them from bullying and harassment. They would also have to allow those students access to gender-segregated classes and activities.

And perhaps most controversially, schools would also be required to give transgender students access to restrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity.

Supporters of the bill say transgender students face tremendous pain and stigma when their identities aren't recognized at school. In state-level debates, parents have told of transgender children who've dehydrated themselves to avoid the need to use school bathrooms that don't align with their gender identity.

But opponents insist allowing such access would violate the privacy rights of other students. Kao said she doesn't doubt the sincerity of transgender students, but she fears the policy could be abused by cisgender boys and men (cisgender refers to people whose gender aligns with the sex parents identified at birth). Some families have extended similar arguments in lawsuits over existing district policies on transgender facilities access.

Athletics

Debate on the House floor Friday also touched on fairness in single-sex sports, an issue that has caused some division in high school, collegiate, and professional athletics in recent years.

If transgender girls participate in women's sports, they may have an unfair advantage over their cisgender peers, some lawmakers argued, because they may have naturally higher levels of testosterone.

Supporters of the Equality Act say those fears are not realistic.

"There is no research to support the claim that allowing trans athletes to play on the team that fits their gender identity will create a competitive imbalance," said GLSEN on its website. "Trans children display the same variation in size, strength, and athletic ability as other youth."

Bullying

When schools fail to address bullying related to protected classes—like race—courts may find that schools have violated a student's civil rights. Explicitly listing gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes would extend an additional measure of protection to students in those groups who are bullied at school, Equality Act supporters said. 

Opponents, including religious liberty groups, fear anti-bullying and inclusion efforts could create a chilling effect on students expressing opposing viewpoints about issues related to sex and gender, or serve to expose young children to issues their parents aren't ready for them to learn about.

Opponents also fear civil rights protections may be used to override state-level restrictions on what may be taught in schools, including prohibitions on teaching about homosexual sex in science and sex-education courses. 

Some Schools Already Do These Things

Many states already have laws that include gender identity and sexual orientation in anti-bullying policies.

And some have state-level civil rights laws that extend rights to LGBTQ students in schools, according to this map from the Human Rights Campaign. 

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Photo: An attendee holds up flags during the New York City Pride Parade, Sunday, June 24, 2018, in New York. --Steve Luciano/AP


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