Transgender bathroom battle goes national with Obama school directive

Amid the national furor over North Carolina’s bathroom bill, the Departments of Justice and Education on Friday issued a joint directive to all public schools to allow transgender students the use of restrooms that match their gender identity. Although noncompliance could cost states billions in federal aid, some conservative lawmakers have already vowed to defy the order. Judy Woodruff reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The political and social struggle over bathrooms and gender blew up today. The spark came from a letter sent to school districts across the nation by the federal government, and it drew immediate condemnation from conservative states.

    For the nation's public schools, the issue was already simmering. After today's federal directive, it's on the front burner, that is, provide transgender students with access to suitable bathrooms and locker rooms that match their chosen gender identity.

  • JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:

    The challenge here is not to isolate anybody. It's not to discriminate against anybody. It's not to make anybody unsafe. It's actually to ensure that our schools are as inclusive and respectful and safe as they can possibly be.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education issued the directive in a formal letter to school districts. It doesn't impose new legal requirements.

    Instead, it cites Title IX's existing protections against sex discrimination that are tied to federal funding. According to the directive: "When a student or parent notifies the school administration that the student will assert a gender identity that differs from previous records, the school will begin treating the student consistent with that gender identity."

    U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the goal is to protect against harassment and address unjust policies in local schools.

    The transgender community welcomed the news.

  • ALEX SINGH, Freshman, New Trier High School:

    We have someone who's very powerful able to help us.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Chicago student Alex Singh transitioned from female to male two years ago. He appeared in a "Frontline" documentary, "Growing Up Trans," on PBS last year.

  • ALEX SINGH:

    When I first came out, I was in seventh grade, and before then, going to the bathroom was kind of uncomfortable for me, as it would be for any guy going into the female restroom. It was very uncomfortable, very nerve-racking. I just felt out of place and like I didn't belong.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And high schoolers in Arlington, Virginia, offered their own reactions today.

  • QUMARI MARTIN, Senior, Wakefield High School:

    Equal rights is just — it's a part of our government, our amendments. Like, I don't think it should be, like, based on gender. If you're a U.S. citizen, you should be treated like one.

  • CELINA CORDOVA, Senior, Wakefield High School:

    I would feel comfortable going into the bathroom, because, obviously, they think that they're female, and I'm female, so they wouldn't harm me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But the backlash began almost immediately.

    LT. GOV. DAN PATRICK (R), Texas: We will not be blackmailed by the president's 30 pieces of silver. We will not sell out our children to the federal government.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick urged his state's school superintendents to defy the Obama administration, even if it means forfeiting billions in federal aid.

  • LT. GOV. DAN PATRICK:

    He's either paying back the lesbian, gay and transgender community that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008, or he believes in this policy. I don't know for what reason he's doing it, but it is the most damaging policy, domestic policy — and that's saying something for this president, who gave us Obamacare — the most damaging public policy he has put forth.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    North Carolina Govern Pat McCrory takes a similar stance. His state and the Justice Department are already suing each other over a new state law restricting public bathroom use to a person's birth gender.

    GOV. PAT MCCRORY (R), North Carolina: This is an issue which is really about privacy vs. equality and that balance. When you go to a restroom or to a locker room or to a shower facility, there is an expectation of privacy, that the only other people in that room, in a very private moment, I might add, will be people of the same gender.

    EMILY, Mother of Clovis, California Student: She said, "Mom, I think there's a boy changing in my locker room."

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Some parents are worried as well. This woman in Clovis, California, where schools already follow a state gender identity law, expressed her concern this week.

  • EMILY:

    I understand that times are changing and that there are issues that need to be addressed. I totally, completely understand that, but I don't think that this is the right solution.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And in another development, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued new rules today saying transgender people can't be denied health care by professional providers who receive federal funding.

    The transgender bathroom battle also spilled over into the presidential race today. Republican Donald Trump was asked about it during phone-ins to morning TV talk shows. He said — quote — "Everybody has to be protected," but he argued it is not a federal issue.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I think the states should make the decision. They're more capable of making the decision. I felt that from the beginning. I just think it should be states' rights. I think many, many things actually should be states' rights, but this is a perfect example of it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The two Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, had no immediate reaction.

    We will get a full airing of the issue right after the news summary.

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