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State school board takes a courageous stand to protect transgender students

Jack Lessenberry

Politically, the easy thing for the State Board of Education would have been to postpone a vote on guidelines for protecting transgender students until after November 8th.

State Board President John Austin, who has led the way on this issue, had every reason not to want this vote now.

He is up for reelection this year, he’s had some thoughts about running for higher office, and there’s a real threat that social and religious conservatives will try to put a target on his back because of his courageous stand against bullying.  

Had he not insisted on this vote, he would probably have coasted to reelection.

Straight-ticket voting has been restored; Donald Trump is unlikely to win Michigan, and that is good news for Democrats running for what are normally less high-profile jobs.

... the board stood up for perhaps the most emotionally vulnerable group in society; transgender teenagers.

But, in today’s political climate, in a world where too many legislators are too cowardly to even raise taxes to properly repair the roads, Austin and the other five Democrats on the board  stood up for perhaps the most emotionally vulnerable group in society; transgender teenagers.

Yesterday, after hours of public testimony and thousands of comments, the board voted six to two to adopt a policy encouraging schools to allow transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

The policy also asks schools to allow students to use the name and pronoun with which they are the most comfortable. Austin and the other Democrats said this was not a case of social engineering. They see this as about education.

“This will create better learning outcomes,” Austin said. Kids who are being consistently bullied find it hard to learn.

High school for many, perhaps most kids, is bad enough.  Fat children are bullied, smart children; anyone who looks and acts different. And studies have consistently shown that transgender students are the most vulnerable.

But anything involving sexuality tends to evoke many people’s demons.

A common irrational fear seems to be that male predators will pretend to be transgender and lurk in girls’ bathrooms to molest them – though there is no evidence that this has happened anywhere. What does happen everywhere is that trans students are savagely beaten up.

There may be no more misunderstood group in society than transgender people, as was evidenced by an utterly ignorant and tasteless comment made by one of the two Republicans on the board.

“When I was young, I identified as pirate,” Richard Zeile said, adding that he depended on teachers and parents to set him straight.

What few realize is how much this is like the early years of the civil rights movement, in which the sort of people who are worried about bathrooms now predicted that integrated classrooms would lead to hulking blacks sexually abusing white girls in school, or at the very least, that the brutes would succeed in marrying our sisters.

That was all nonsense, and so too are today’s fears.

This is really not about bathrooms, but human and civil rights.

Yesterday, Max Rasmussen, a courageous trans student who now identifies as male told the board “this is not a delusion, and my gender identity is not an affliction or confusion. It is who I am.”

Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t possibly have put it more elegantly than that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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