A state-wide debate in Michigan about the treatment of LGBTQ public school students has become national news as states like Georgia and North Carolina wrestle with legislation restricting the rights of LGBTQ citizens. In Michigan the State Board of Education frequently releases guidances that outline how public schools can best address a given problem, like bullying or poor academic performance for a particular demographic. A recent guidance, issued on Feb. 23, outlines how public schools in the state can best create safe and productive learning spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students. It states that "the responsibility for determining a student’s gender identity rests with the student." As such, "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." The guidance also discusses bathroom policy.
According to the State Board's president, John C. Austin, this wouldn't normally be fodder for national news coverage. But "somebody organized a national right-wing news blog to run a story designed purposely to whip up the Tea Party base and anti-Common Core crowd," Austin told Complex over the phone.
The Daily Caller, founded in 2010 by conservative bow tie enthusiast Tucker Carlson and former Dick Cheney crony Neil Patel, ran a story on the guidance on March 21. "Michigan Schools to Let Students Choose Gender, Name and Bathroom" went the headline. The story reads relatively even-handed, assuming you have some familiarity with trans identity and the problems that community faces. "The guidance seems to intentionally cut parents out of the process," writes Peter Hasson. My first thought was, Right, because a student could face emotional or even physical abuse if their parents or guardians are intolerant; but, as you can see in the comments, Hasson's readers had a different outlook.
As Austin put it, the reaction has been, "Look at what the State Board is doing! They’re trying to take away parents’ rights and have transgender kids menace your child in a bathroom!"
According to Austin, this has led to "people calling Republican legislators saying, 'You should be actively fighting this.'"
Complex spoke with Austin about what the guidance actually calls for and why it has national implications during a time when state governments are trying to limit the rights of their LGBTQ citizens.
What was the genesis of this guidance? Who proposed it and when?
Last year, Michigan's teacher of the year, Rick Joseph, from Birmingham, met with me about what we needed to advocate for. He said that there was a group of educators around the state who were interested in working on some additional guidance about creating an environment that’s supportive of gay and transgender kids. It was something that schools across the state were asking for. More transgender kids are getting comfortable representing as who they are and so what do they need? What kind of practices, policies, and programs in school will help them not feel ostracized, will make them feel embraced and connected to learning?
When Rick brought it up, I said, "Of course," and then went to my colleagues on the board and our superintendent and said, "You’ve got folks already who want to develop this guidance. This is important for improving learning and life chances for a lot of our kids—let’s support them and bring forth a set of recommendations around a family of things schools can do to create a supportive environment for kids who we know have a greater risk of suicide, who are not achieving academically, who are sometimes not coming to school because they feel unsafe or ostracized."
That process went on for the last three or four months with an expert work group that included quite a diverse group of educators, superintendent reps, mental health experts, attorneys. We consulted with other states, too, like Massachusetts.
Is this typically how a guidance happens? That a teacher or a number of schools are requesting guidelines on a specific topic?
Yeah. This is the State Board of Education, which is elected by the people of Michigan. Our job is to provide leadership and supervision over all public education so that all kids are thriving and able to learn successfully.
You can’t legislate gender identity and shove people back into a closet.
The comments on the Daily Caller article act like this dropped out of nowhere, that it's the State Board of Education imposing its will on an unsuspecting populace.
The fact is, almost 10 percent of ours kids are either gay or trans. We have a 6 percent Latino student population and that community has achievement deficits that we’re trying to deal with, to close that gap. We also have state-wide initiatives to help African-American male students. No one has questioned or complained historically about us organizing to help Latino students or African-American male students. Now we have gay and trans kids who have clear obstacles to their learning and at-risk challenges to their health that can be changed with supportive learning environments.
And the reaction is outrage from a national news blog.
It’s an attack on some people's moral and personal beliefs. I feel for the kids with parents who aren’t supportive of who they are. Some of the guidance is designed to say that each case is unique and we want the kid, parents, and the school to work together on name and bathrooms, but that’s assuming that the parents are supportive. If parents are going to deny that their child is trans, then that child is at risk and is not going to thrive. The least we can do at school is to meet kids where they are—the schools that can and want to, and I hope that most want to.
There are over 5,000 comments on EveryVoiceCountsMi.org, the site dedicated to hosting public feedback about the guidance before it's voted on—is this an unusual number for a guidance like this?
One commenter wrote, “If you think a biological boy will escape harassment in a girls' bathroom, or vice versa, you are kidding yourself.” In general, do you think children are more understanding of identity than their parents/guardians realize?
Yes. I know trans kids and I know high school kids, and while this generation has bullying problems, young people are much more tolerant. They recognize and celebrate diversity in all forms. If you know anything about what transgender kids experience, you’d know that they’re the least likely to want to menace someone in a bathroom. They’re more concerned about “Can I pass?” You know, a trans boy is worried about passing: “Can I pass as a trans boy?” And that’s why a trans kid might want a private bathroom so they don’t have to worry about that. The best solution is usually for those kids that want it to have a gender neutral or unisex bathroom that’s private. Otherwise they’ll skip out of school to find one that is. I know that as a fact. That’s the kind of recommendation we’re making—work out a bathroom policy that allows all the kids to feel comfortable going to the bathroom in private if they want it. And that goes for the straight kids, too. That’s what’s being misrepresented about this guidance, that we’re going to insist that people go together across genders.
When you choose to discriminate, you face the rightful wrath of the business and broader community.
Right. And anyone arguing that this is going to have boys claiming to be trans girls to peep in the girls’ bathroom seems to fundamentally misunderstand the situation.
Absolutely. It’s fear and phobias and lack of knowledge. And certainly a willing lack of empathy to try and understand trans kids or even acknowledge that they exist. If you’re saying these kids aren’t transgender, they’re just confused and that if they’re born a boy then they’re a boy, and we’re going to insist on that and legislate that, well, we know that that’s not only wrong, it’s destructive.
What do you think when you read about the bill in North Carolina that forbids trans individuals from using the bathroom that corresponds to their identity?
There’s a legislator in Michigan who is threatening to introduce a similar bill here. It’s both unfortunate and backward and wrong. The Supreme Court and the people of Michigan appreciate that there are gay and transgender people in this country and that they deserve the same rights as all other people. You can’t legislate gender identity and shove people back into a closet. But you see what’s happening in Georgia. When you choose to discriminate, you face the rightful wrath of the business and broader community. They don’t want to be aligned with a state that is anti-gay or anti-trans. Businesses want to nurture and embrace talent in all forms. Those proposals send a hugely destructive message. Do you want to be a talent magnet or a repellant? Who wants to be a state that is a backwater where gay or trans people are viewed as non-existent or second-class? You’ve just lost those people from your state. And you’ve put them at risk if they’re growing up in your state.
Michigan is part of this national discussion now. I’m on the State Board of Education because I care about providing political leadership and policy leadership around what matters to our economy and our ability to create economic opportunity for our people. We should be a state that’s welcoming and celebrating and the diversity of our people.
How diverse is the board itself?
We have eight members. We have an African-American woman, a Latina woman, four white women, and two white guys. None of us are openly gay or trans.
Do you feel like the board could use greater diversity?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ll have an election coming up—I’ll be up for reelection—and we should have a Democratic candidate who brings additional diversity to the board and to our policy making. We should be modeling the diversity that is Michigan as much as we can.