One key through-line in the 2016 hit film Hidden Figures shows African American “human computer” Katherine Johnson running across NASA’s Langley campus to get to a “colored” bathroom. Pharrell Williams even composed the song “Runnin” to underscore the indignity of that gender bias and racial segregation in the early 1960s. When Johnson’s boss realizes how this is inhibiting her ability to concentrate on calculating astronaut John Glenn’s trajectory into space, he desegregated the bathrooms, regardless of state laws and custom. And while numerous instances in the film are fictional, Glenn personally asking for Johnson to calculate the trajectory for his historic February 1962 Friendship 7 orbit around the Earth is true.
How ironic, then, that Alex Howe—a transgender man highlighted in a recent devastating Politico report on Education Sec. Betsy DeVos’ blatant anti-trans discrimination—is now happily studying physics and computer science at a Vermont college. The indignity of being publicly forced to use a bathroom facility that does not accord with one’s gender identity is just as discriminatory in 2018 as the racial bias was in 1962, something Howe and others complained about to DeVos, only to have their complaints callously dismissed. In Howe’s case, he had a long walk across his Texas high school campus to use two unisex stalls in the middle of a large building away from his classrooms since his Prosper Independent School District prohibited him from using the closer boy’s restroom.
“It was isolating and alienating,” Howe told Politico about his experience starting as a 16-year old junior at Prosper High School, 40 miles outside Dallas. In addition to a hostile school environment and bullying with inadequate administrative response, conservative parents argued that they didn’t want Howe rooming with their kids during away competitions for the debate team.
“He was forced to room alone and he was ostracized for who he is,” debate coach Aaron Renaud, a Howe ally, told Politico. “That was what the [school] administration considered a compromise.”
“I was counting down the days until I graduated,” Howe said. He wrote a letter to his school district on June 14, 2017, asking “the administration to treat other transgender students according to their gender identity in the future.”
Valerie Little, the District’s Title IX compliance officer, said a “full investigation” was conducted into his complaint and told Howe that “you were provided with equal access to all school facilities as there was a plan in place for you use a particular restroom which was gender neutral,” Politico reported. “The evidence does not show that your academic performance or educational opportunities, while at PHS, were negatively affected.”
On the contrary, Howe’s mother, Stacey Burg, told Politico. The teenager struggled with depression. “He would see his therapist and they would increase his antidepressants,” she said. “He would say it’s schoolwork and debate, but I thought it was more. He was stressed all the time. He was upset, he was depressed, he was anxious. He would get angry at home.”
Howe filed an official complaint with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights on June 22, 2017, which federal investigators dismissed six months later. “Additionally, as Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education has stated, each school has a responsibility to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe environment. Some states and school districts have found adopted policies and practices that protect all students, including transgender students,” the federal dismissal letter said.
Politico reviewed 107 complaints of bias filed by trans students with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights since January 2014, including “at least six involving students who were denied access to bathrooms of their choice and five that were dismissed” by the Trump administration. The media outlet also noted the GLSEN study on the serious physical and emotional health consequences of not using a bathroom that fits the student’s gender identity. Recognizing the bias and health concerns, the Obama administration issued a directive in May 2016 alerting school districts that trans students are allowed to use any bathroom that align with their gender identity under the protection afforded them by Title IX. Shortly thereafter, however, 13 states asked a federal judge for an injunction on the Obama directive, which was upheld in October 2016 nationwide. In February 2017, Trump rescinded the Obama directive and DeVos removed all trans bathroom-access resources from the Education Department website. In March 2017, the hammer fell with the Supreme Court saying it would not hear a high-profile case brought by a Virginia high-school student, sending it back to a lower court.
Just as white movie-goers vicariously experience the painful indignity of sexism and racism in NASA and cheer when the leading hidden figures overcome their particular obstacles in 1962, so do California’s LGBT politicos and allies empathize with the similar anguish of the transgender students’ experience in 2018—thanks largely, they say, to the political machinations of Education Sec. Betsy DeVos.
“The nation’s strongest anti-discrimination laws are in place here and we at Equality California continue to work every day to improve school climates for LGBT young people,” Jo Michael, Equality California’s Legislative Manager, at an Aug. 20 news conference called in Sacramento to tell DeVos to “Do Your Job” and to promote Assemblymember Thurmond’s AB 2153, that would provide teachers and school staff with the training they need to support LGBTQ students.
“It’s unconscionable for the US Department of Education to not protect transgender students or any students. We all know how hard it can be to get through high school under the best of circumstances,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. “California can’t afford to lose any students. Our economy needs them. And our California Dream and our California principles demand that we stand behind them – every single one of them.”
“It is imperative in our obligation as public officials that we stand up for all individuals in our schools,” said out Assemblymember Evan Low, chair of the LGBT legislative Caucus. “What you see illustrated here today is that strong commitment reaffirming the affirmation the importance of the work that we have ahead of us and our focused approach on the policies in an inclusive society, not an exclusive one.” The “abdication of the Education Sec. is very stark,” he added.
“We’re calling on Betsy DeVos to do her job,” said Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, who is running to State Superintendent, “to do the job of what an Education Secretary should do: protect and defend every student in our state and country and provide a quality education.
“It is sad that many of our students don’t have the right to use the bathroom of their choice, that they don’t have the ability to be safe on their campus, freed from bullying, free from isolation,” Thurmond added. “It is our responsibility to support all students and when Sec. DeVos says she does not think it is her job to support or defend transgender students, leave it to California as a leader to say that she must! We call on her to carry out the duties that she was appointed to carry out and to send the message to the president and the federal government that we must support, protect, and cherish all of our students.”
Equality California and the California LGBT Caucus also released a letter to DeVos, which reads in part:
“Most troubling about this [Politico] report is the fact that the dismissal of these complaints by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) appears to have happened at your direction.
“Since your confirmation last year, we have heard you say, repeatedly, that “all children” deserve a quality education and that “every child” deserves a safe and supportive learning environment. But it has become increasingly clear that to you, “all children” does not include those who are transgender — and that when you say, “every child,” you really mean, “every child whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth.”
“Such an egregious failure to protect transgender public school students from discrimination, bullying and harassment is a dereliction of your duty to enforce federal civil rights laws, but appears to be part of a larger campaign by the Administration to dehumanize transgender Americans.
“As you are aware, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq., (Title IX) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”
There may be some question as to whether DeVos is aware of that still standing federal definition. But Equality California and LGBT lawmakers intend to remind her.
And DeVos should care: who knows if maybe one day trans computer scientist Alex Howe will lead the new Space Force.