Saying it is time to “tell those fanning the flames of fear and playing politics to stop,” Michigan State Board of Education President John Austin has made LGBTQ (the Q stands for those questioning their sexual or gender identities) student safety and civil rights the center of his campaign for election.
“I need your help to stop radical Republicans from putting our (150,000) LGBT students at risk,” Austin wrote in a re-election campaign fundraising email.
Austin is a liberal Democrat who also directs the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas Foundation, an organization devoted to “ideas and network building,” and directs the Brookings Institution’s Great Lakes Economic Initiative.
As Austin campaigns, the state’s Board of Education has continued to listen to hours of testimony in reaction to the Michigan Department of Education’s LGBTQ guidance report, “Every Voice Counts.”
The guidance report, which needs to be approved by the state school board, has enraged parents, teachers, school administrators and, yes, some Republicans.
At the top of the list, as far as those opposed to the recommendations are concerned, is the idea that schools should let students use locker rooms and bathrooms that fit whichever gender they choose.
“Students should be allowed to use the restroom in accordance with their gender identity. Alternative and non-stigmatizing options, such as an all-gender or single-user restroom (e.g., staff bathroom or nurse’s office), should be made available to students who request them, but not presented as the only option. Any student who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of underlying reasons, has the right to access a single-user restroom,” the report recommends.
The same philosophy goes for locker rooms or any place students change their clothes.
“A student should not be required to use a locker room that is incongruent with their gender identity. Locker room usage should be determined on a case-by-case basis, using the guiding principles of safety and honoring the student’s gender identity and expression.”
Of course, if a student whose gender at birth was female wants to wear a tuxedo to the prom, that is cool, too.
“Students should have the right to express their gender at school, within the parameters of the school’s dress code, without discrimination or harassment. The school’s dress code should be gender-neutral and not restrict a student’s clothing choices on the basis of gender. In the event that the dress code has differing expectations or practices based on gender, students should be permitted to dress in accordance with their gender identity,” the report says.
The “Every Voice Counts” report recommends letting students not only choose their gender, but also the names and pronouns that fit their new gender.
“School staff should address students by their chosen name and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity, regardless of whether there has been a legal name change. Upon request, the chosen name and gender should be included in the district’s information management systems, in addition to the student’s legal name. District-generated student email addresses should also reflect the student’s chosen name, if first names are identifiable in such addresses. These changes inform all staff, including substitute teachers, of the name and pronoun to use when addressing the student, and help avoid inadvertent disclosures,” the report says.
Parental involvement is also an issue brought up by opponents to the report.
One of the recommendations is that parents need not be notified when their children and other children decide they want to use a restroom or locker room based on their “gender identity.”
The Republican-dominated Michigan Legislature took one look at those recommendations, along with the first month of outraged public comment, and decided lawmakers and the public should get another month to voice their displeasure.
Michigan Sen. Tom Casperson, one of the Republicans Austin was referring to in his campaign email, told the state Board of Education during an hours-long hearing May 10 that local schools can handle LGBTQ students without any help from the Michigan school board.
“They have parental involvement and consider the safety of all children. It would be wise for board members to talk to folks who have had success,” Casperson said. “This (policy) seems pretty aggressive, and you cannot carve parents out of it. I would like you to reconsider.”
Austin argues the new guidelines would protect transgendered students from harassment and actually make it easier for local school district officials to deal with gender issues.
Michigan Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R) has used the phrase “social engineering” to describe the new guidelines on how to deal with students and their genders.
“They will distract teachers from their core mission of teaching and helping children become proficient in areas such as reading, science, math, and history,” Colbeck said in a statement.
Michigan Rep. Phil Potvin, another of the Republicans Austin might have been referring to in his fundraising email, chastised the State Board of Education for “wasting our time on a very minor issue.”
“I’d like you people to reconsider what you’re really doing,” Potvin said.
Austin has stressed that the word “guidance” was used intentionally. None of the school districts in Michigan have to abide by the Board of Education’s recommendations.
But, still, the Detroit News reported hundreds of people opposed to the Michigan Board of Education LGBT guidance protested outside the May 10 hearing.
They sang “Amazing Grace,” and heard a series of speakers criticize the Board of Education’s proposal.
“I pray you’ll help them see the errors in this thing, Lord, the confusion that it creates, the violation, Lord, of the rights of so many of our children,” said Pastor Gene Haymaker.
Although Austin stressed the LGBT recommendations will be voluntary as far as local school districts are concerned, he asked campaign donors to think about a larger issue.
“Republican legislators determined to make Michigan the next North Carolina are not only attacking me and pushing to abolish the State Board of Education as political payback,” Austin wrote, “but they have promised to violate the civil rights of transgender students by outlawing access to bathrooms.”
Stephanie White, the director of the LGBTQ-rights group Equality Michigan, has endorsed Austin’s campaign and his position.
“Gay and transgender kids need strong adults who will fight for their rights to get a good education without discrimination and violence in schools,” White said.
Brenda Battle-Jordan, a school board member from a district near Flint, declared the resolution to the debate seemed simple to her.
“Girls use the girls’ bathroom, and boys use the boys’ bathroom,” she said.
But more importantly, Battle-Jordan stressed that despite reassurances the “Every Voice Counts” policy was nothing but guidance, “Whatever you do, it trickles down to us. I just hope you get this right.”
Cecil Connelly is a 16-year-old in Ferndale, Mich., who was born a girl, but now sees himself (pronoun as requested by Cecil) as a boy. To him, this is a tempest without a teapot.
“If I were to go into the guys’ bathroom, it wouldn’t be like ‘Oh, I’m just going in there to mess around,’” Cecil told the Detroit News. “It’s ‘I gotta pee, I gotta leave.’”