AUGUSTA, Maine — New guidelines under consideration by the Maine Human Rights Commission designed to clarify the rights of transgender students in Maine has sparked a passionate debate over what some feel are impractical or abhorrent new requirements for public schools.
The commission’s proposed guidelines, which are scheduled for further consideration on March 1, state that transgender students are guaranteed access to public school bathrooms, locker rooms and sports teams based on whatever gender they consider themselves to be. That means a boy who identifies himself as a girl is by law allowed to use girls bathrooms, locker rooms and participate on girls sports teams, or vice versa. Being “transgender” means having a gender identity that is opposite a person’s biologically assigned sex at birth.
For some, including the Christian Civic League of Maine, the commission’s guidelines are “the latest outrage by radical homosexual activists” which constitute “an impossible absurdity,” according to a press release.
Paul Vestal, chairman of the Maine Human Rights Commission, told the Bangor Daily News Tuesday that there is nothing new about the requirements for public schools and that the commission’s guidelines do nothing more than clarify a law that has been on the books for five years.
At issue is a document under development by the commission titled “Sexual Orientation in Schools and Colleges.” The document is supposed to inform students, teachers, public schools and colleges about their rights and responsibilities under the Maine Human Rights Act. That act was amended by the Legislature in 2005 to include “sexual orientation” as a protected class, a decision that was upheld by voters during a people’s veto attempt later that year.
The debate was rekindled last year when the Human Rights Commission ruled against the Orono School Department for denying access to the girls bathroom to a biologically male student who identifies as a female. An appeal of that decision is pending in Penobscot County Superior Court.
Mike Hein, adminstrator of the Maine Christian Civic League, said Tuesday that his organization is “furious” that it was not invited to or notified about a Dec. 15 work session on the guidelines held by the Maine Human Rights Commission. Hein said he is consulting with attorney Steve Whiting of Portland about whether the Christian Civic League has grounds for a religious discrimination suit against the Human Rights Commission.
“If [Whiting] feels we can make a compelling argument, we’ll file it,” said Hein, who said he is mobilizing a contingent of social conservatives to attend the March 1 meeting.
In its press release, the Christian Civic League stated, “Although the recommendations are offered to public schools, colleges and other educational institutions in the form of guidelines, schools which violate the guidelines will be brought before the commission and may be subject to legal action.
“The Christian Civic League of Maine believes that these new guidelines are not merely an error in judgment on the part of the Maine Human Rights Commission. Rather, they represent the latest effort by the homosexual lobby to impose their confused views of sexuality on society at large.”
Representatives from several gay and lesbian rights groups participated in a Dec. 15 workshop with the commission on the guidelines. One of them was Peter Rees of the Downeast Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network based in Ellsworth. Rees said people who oppose rights for transgender students — such as allowing them to use locker rooms with people who are biologically of the opposite sex — fear something “that just isn’t borne out in reality.”
“What do they think is going to happen?” asked Rees. “That boy who is identifying as a girl is not going to be displaying herself in a girls’ locker room. She’s going to be acting as much like a girl as possible and being very modest.”
The Maine School Management Association is another organization that has raised concerns about the guidelines, though on different grounds than the Christian Civic League. Bruce Smith, an attorney who represents MSMA, said he believes the commission’s proposed guidelines go beyond what is intended in the Maine Human Rights Act.
“That schools should take all reasonable measures against harassment is something the MSMA supports and believes in,” he said. “What [the commission has] done is go beyond the issue of ‘you shall not discriminate’ to say [transgender students] will be given certain specific accommodations. Our sense is that this goes well beyond what the statute says. This is a specific policy issue that should go before the Legislature or at least through the administrative rule-making process.”
Smith said the MSMA’s chief concern is the safety of transgender students who use opposite-sex bathrooms or locker rooms and the fairness of biological males competing against biological females. He contended that his group and others were not invited into the discussion until it was too late to make a difference.
“There are a lot of other considerations that have to be taken into account,” said Smith. “The MSMA doesn’t want to be seen as being unsupportive of kids of different sexual orientations. It’s the process that’s important.”
Vestal admitted that the commission is caught in a thorny situation, but it’s a place in which the commission is accustomed to being.
“We’re not doing anything but enforcing the law,” he said. “This is about trying to get everyone on the same page. We know it’s not that easy for everyone to see it that way.”