The Story: The Trump administration recently issued a letter stating that teachers and students could be investigated for a civil rights violation if they refuse to use the “preferred pronouns” of transgender students.
The Background: In February the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued a notice withdrawing the statements of policy and guidance issued last year by the Obama administration that affected public schools.
In May 2016, the Obama administration sent a letter to all public schools in America notifying teachers and administrators of a new regulation for treating “gender identity.” The letter stated that, to comply with federal law, policies concerning students would be based on their “gender identity” and not on their biological sex.
The Trump administration disagreed that “sex” and “gender identity” should be interpreted as synonymous, and believed that the issue should be handled by states and local school districts.
At the time, many parents and educators cheered the changed and assumed the Trump administration had resolved the controversy. But earlier this month the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a new memo on “Instructions to the Field re Complaints Involving Transgender Students.”
The new memo clarifies that the withdrawal of the Obama Administration guidance documents “does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying or harassment.” It also clarifies, as Howard Feinman says, when the OCR “may open an investigation in various situations, including cases in which gender-based harassment has created a hostile environment for a transgender student.”
Unfortunately, included under “gender-based harassment” is a refusal to use “preferred pronouns.” As the memo states, a harassment investigation may be opened for “refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred name or pronouns when the school uses preferred names for gender-conforming students or when the refusal is motivated by animus toward people who do not conform to sex stereotypes of a transgender student created a hostile environment.”
What this means is that students and teachers who refuse to use “preferred pronouns” can be investigated for violating a transgender students civil rights. For example, if a transgender girl (i.e., a boy who identifies as female) wants to be referred to as “she” the student would be in violating of a federal law for referring to him as “he.” Similarly, a student who was non-gender conforming may prefer to use pronouns such as “ze” or “they” and it would be considered a violation to refer to them as “he” (if they are biological male) or “she” (if they are a biological female). (There are also other transgender pronouns such as zie, sie, ey, ve, tey, and e.)