Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., isn’t afraid to break party ranks on issues of LGBT rights — especially when her family is involved.
Ros-Lehtinen, whose son Rodrigo is transgender, released a critical statement Wednesday after the Trump administration announced it was revoking federal guidelines that protect transgender students from sex discrimination.
She said she intends to reintroduce a bill she first submitted in 2015 with Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.: the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
“This lamentable decision can lead to hostile treatment of transgender students and studies have shown that bullying and harassment can be detrimental to the emotional and physical well-being of teenagers,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Wednesday. “Evidence has shown that acceptance of transgender students lowers their risk of suicide. Jared and I introduced our SNDA bill to prevent discrimination of transgender young people and we will re-introduce it because our country benefits when everyone is accepted and we live up to our nation’s promise of inclusiveness.”
For Ros-Lehtinen, the politics surrounding transgender rights are personal. Last May, she appeared in a public service announcement organized by SAVE, a gay rights group based in Florida, with her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, and their transgender son.
“Every transgender person is part of someone’s family and should be treated with compassion and protected from discrimination,” she said. “Family is about acceptance and love. All of our children should have the opportunity to work hard, earn a living and take responsibility for their lives on the same terms as everyone else.”
Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican backer of same-sex marriage rights, also supports the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require schools to create an anti-discrimination code of conduct. In the case G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, she signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to grant transgender students equal protection in their use of public restrooms.
Earlier Wednesday, President Trump rescinded a landmark initiative by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, instructing public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity. Back in May, the Education and Justice departments had clarified that transgender students were protected from gender discrimination under Title IX. Any schools not complying with the Obama-approved guidelines might not have received funding. The initiative was celebrated as a step forward by progressives and scorned by social conservatives as an instance of government overreach and moral policing.
Regardless, Trump overturned the guidelines arguing that local and state governments and school districts should have the right to establish their own bathroom policies without consulting with the federal government.
The White House press office said Trump believes transgender bathroom policy should be decided at the state level and that this joint decision by the Justice and Education departments “paves the way for an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level with input from parents, students, teachers and administrators.”
“This is an issue best solved at the state and local level,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “Schools, communities, and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students. I have dedicated my career to advocating for and fighting on behalf of students, and as Secretary of Education, I consider protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America.”
For LGBT advocates, however, this move undermines the exact point of Obama’s guidelines — to protect vulnerable students, especially where their gender identity is not accepted or understood.
Classical crossover singer Jackie Evancho, who sang the national anthem at Trump’s inauguration, said she was disappointed by the president’s decision and requested a meeting to discuss transgender rights. Evancho has a transgender sister.
— jackie evancho (@jackieevancho) February 22, 2017
— jackie evancho (@jackieevancho) February 23, 2017
James Esseks, the LGBT project director for the American Civil Liberties Union, released a statement saying that Trump’s decision to overturn this guidance shows that his promise to protect the LGBT community was merely “empty rhetoric.”
“But the bottom line is that this does not undo legal protections for trans students, and school districts can and must continue to protect them and all students from discrimination,” Esseks said. “School districts that recognize that should continue doing the right thing; for the rest, we’ll see them in court. We will continue to fight for the rights and dignity of transgender youth, especially now that the Trump administration has decided to turn its back on them.”
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