Gov. Paul LePage has signed on to a lawsuit brought by 11 states against the Obama administration for its rules that protect transgender students. It is important to note that LePage joined the lawsuit on his own, not on behalf of Maine.
This is an important distinction because Maine law and Maine people do not support the kind of discrimination the lawsuit would allow.
Last Wednesday, attorneys general from 10 states plus two education officials signed on to a lawsuit challenging recent rules from the Obama administration that say transgender students must be allowed to use school bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.
Because LePage signed on to the legal challenge as an individual and did not consult with Attorney General Janet Mills on the lawsuit, the state cannot — and should not — be seen as a supporter of the suit. For this reason, the state will not cover legal expenses related to the challenge.
However, because LePage’s name, as governor of Maine, appears on the first page of the legal filing, Maine’s tradition of acceptance and tolerance has been damaged. It is not the first time. Late last year, LePage signed on to a legal brief challenging an American Civil Liberties lawsuit on behalf of a transgender boy in Virginia. Gavin Grimm was told by his school that he must use a girls’ bathroom because he is biologically a boy.
The governor’s views are counter to Maine’s tradition of acceptance. In 2005, voters rejected an effort to remove “sexual orientation” from the Maine Human Rights Act. Maine was the first state where voters approved same-sex marriage in 2012.
LePage’s views are also counter to state law. Maine lawmakers in 2011 rejected a bill, sponsored by now-House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, to change Maine’s Human Right’s Act to restrict public bathroom and shower use. It would have required transgender people to use the facilities matching their biological gender.
In 2014, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Nicole Maines in a lawsuit against the Orono school district, guaranteeing transgender students the right to use school bathrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify. To ensure schools complied with the court ruling, the Maine Human Rights Commission earlier this year issued guidelines for schools, directing those that offer educational and extracurricular opportunities separately based on gender to allow students to participate in accordance with their gender identity.
There are no legal consequences for a district that does not follow guidelines, so the commission, along with the Department of Education, was working on enforceable rules. The LePage administration stopped that process this winter.
By delaying rules for schools, which are asking for clarity in how they should accommodate transgender students, the LePage administration needlessly puts these vulnerable students at risk. By joining lawsuits in Texas and Virginia, the governor has shown he’ll put his personal views ahead of his responsibilities to lead Maine for all the state’s residents.
Transgender students need protections from harassment. The suicide risk for people who are transgender is nearly 10 times that of the general population. More than 40 percent of transgender individuals have attempted suicide, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Nearly three-quarters of LGBT youth report being verbally harassed, and one-third report having been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a 2013 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. More than a third of these students avoid gender-segregated spaces in schools, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.
LePage is failing these students and Maine by joining lawsuits that are counter to Maine’s values and character.