This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced Wednesday that it would extend Title IX protections to gay and transgender students.
“Today, the Department makes clear that all students—including LGBTQ+ students—deserve the opportunity to learn and thrive in schools that are free from discrimination,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination based on sex in schools.
In a landmark decision last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was unconstitutional. The DOE said its new interpretation of Title IX stems from this case.
“What this means for students is that we can align to protecting students of all gender identities within schools,” Rebby Kern, director of education policy at Equality NC, said.
The DOE’s move overturns Trump-era interpretations of Title IX. In May of last year, the Trump administration said that Title IX protections did not extend to transgender students and threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that allowed transgender athletes to participate in school sports.
The news comes after North Carolina dealt with its own flurry of anti-transgender laws in recent months.
In March, a group of N.C. Republicans sponsored the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” a bill aimed at ensuring that only biologically female students could participate in women’s sports—excluding transgender athletes.
Two more bills were introduced the following month, seeking to ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender individuals under 21 and allowing healthcare providers to refuse any treatment that violated their conscience.
Kern said that the DOE’s new interpretation of Title IX would protect trans students from bills like the “Save Women’s Sports Act” but wider federal legislation is needed to combat bills that seek to restrict healthcare.
None of these bills have made it to the governor’s desk—but they echoed another piece of anti-trans legislation in the state’s recent history.
HB 2, also known as “the bathroom bill,” was signed into law in 2016. It overturned an ordinance in Charlotte that sought to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and forbade any local governments to pass similar laws. It also prohibited transgender individuals from using public restrooms that corresponded with their gender.
HB 2 was repealed a year later, after the state had already lost NCAA sporting events and over $3 billion in business because of it. To pass the repeal, lawmakers reached a compromise that put a three-year moratorium on any local governments passing anti-discrimination ordinances.
A month after the moratorium lifted in 2019, local governments across the state began to adopt LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws. Hillsborough, Carrboro, and Chapel Hill were the first this past January, with more towns beginning to follow.
Kern said there is much work left to be done to protect LGBTQ Americans, but the DOE’s move is a significant step in the right direction.
“Having a clear Title IX statement that says gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the way that we interpret discrimination can help hold the door open for academic achievement for all children in schools,” they said.
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