(Reuters) - Transgender students cheered the Obama administration’s directive on Friday requiring U.S. public schools to allow them to use toilets and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity while some school districts said they would not comply.
“This is the strongest guidance to date from the federal government to schools instructing them on how they must treat transgender students fairly and without discrimination,” said Ilona Turner, legal director at the Transgender Law Center in California.
“This will be something that courts will have to give great weight to.”
The letter, signed by officials from the U.S. Education and Justice Departments, intensified the debate over balancing equal rights with privacy concerns.
The Obama administration told U.S. public schools on Friday that transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice, upsetting Republicans and raising the likelihood of fights over federal funding and legal authority.
Transgender student Gavin Grimm, who won a U.S. appeals court ruling in April in his fight over bathroom access at his Virginia high school, said he was happy with the support from the Obama administration.
“This guidance would have made a big difference in my life,” he wrote on Twitter.
Educators are facing scrutiny and legal action over access to toilets and locker rooms based on gender identity versus a student’s sex at birth.
The federal government’s position is that U.S. laws against sex discrimination in educational programs include gender identity. Friday’s directive was the broadest attempt to enforce that stance on a national basis.
But North Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest said in a statement that the state would “not stand by and let our locker rooms and high school showers be used for social experimentation at the expense of the privacy and protection of our young boys and girls.”
Forest advised schools to reject the policy and said a state law enacted in March restricting bathroom choice for transgender people trumped the administration’s “non-binding directive.”
North Carolina is locked in a high-profile legal battle with the federal government over its “bathroom bill.” On Monday, Republican leaders of the state’s legislature said they had sued the U.S. Justice Department over the state’s law restricting public bathroom access for transgender people.
That lawsuit came hours after North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory sued the Justice Department, accusing it of overreaching after federal lawyers said the state’s law requiring public bathroom use based on birth gender was a civil rights violation.
In Florida, Marion County Public Schools showed no sign of backing down from a resolution passed in April requiring students to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate.
“I don’t believe our board will reverse the decision unless it is instructed by the courts,” the school system’s spokesman Kevin Christian said in a telephone interview.
Mississippi’s Department of Education said it would comply with the federal guidance.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order in March allowing a person of any gender to choose whether to use a men’s or women’s toilet or locker room in all municipal properties including public parks, pools, and playgrounds. The order requires city agencies to post the policy in conspicuous locations within three months and to train all employees within two years.
New York City’s action came a week after South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed a bill that would have made the state the first to limit transgender students to bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their birth gender.
In November, Houston voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure known as the “bathroom ordinance” that would have established non-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people.
Nationwide, 22 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming people report being denied access to appropriate bathrooms at work, and 26 percent report being denied access to bathrooms in an educational setting, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Additional reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Toni Reinhold