State Board of Education President John Austin, photo by Anne C. Savage for Eclectablog
In December of last year, Rick Joseph, the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year and self-described “former homophobe”, approached State Board of Education president John Austin asking if he’d be interested in developing guidelines for Michigan school administrators when it comes to making the school environment safe and welcoming for LGBTQ students. That’s currently not the case in far too many places as the facts show:
- 8.4% of Michigan students report as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
- 12% of LGB students did not go to school in the past year, because they felt unsafe-twice the rate of heterosexual students
- 46% of LGB students had grades that consisted mostly of C’s, D’s and F’s-twice the rate of heterosexual students
- 29% have attempted suicide in the last year-4.5 times the rate of non-LGB students
For transgender students, it’s even worse and they face levels of violence and intimidation that surpass any other group.
Austin agreed to champion the development of a guidance document to be used by schools as they prepare their own policies and procedures relating to LGBTQ students. A work group was formed and a draft guidance document was prepared. On February 23rd of this year, the draft guidance was posted for discussion at March 8 meeting, and beginning of public comment and the legislature was advised.
The move set off a firestorm as anti-LGBTQ groups and individuals swarmed the internet and media sites raising unwarranted fears of little girls being attacked in washrooms and locker rooms by boys pretending to be girls. This stems from a section of the proposed guidance document titled “Guidance to Support Transgender and Gender Nonconforming (GNC) Students” pertaining to restroom and locker room use:
4) Restrooms. Students should be allowed to use the restroom in accordance with their gender identity. Alternative and non-stigmatizing options, such as an all-gender or singleuser restroom (e.g., staff bathroom or nurse’s office), should be made available to students who request them, but not presented as the only option. Any student who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of underlying reasons, has the right to access a single-user restroom.
5) Locker Rooms or Changing Facilities. A student should not be required to use a locker room that is incongruent with their gender identity. Locker room usage should be determined on a case-by-case basis, using the guiding principles of safety and honoring the student’s gender identity and expression. Some options include: 1) an adjusted changing schedule; 2) use of a private area in the facility (e.g., nearby restroom stall with a door, an area separated by a curtain, a physical education instructor’s office in the locker room); and 3) use of a nearby private area (e.g., restroom, nurse’s office). Any student who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reasons, may request the options listed above.
Two weeks after the document was posted online, Republican Board of Education member Eileen Weiser emailed State Superintendent Brian Whiston and Board President John Austin objecting to the guidance being taken up and criticizing some of the language.
As comments for and against the guidance document were being collected, anti-LGBTQ forces went into action. An atrocious Detroit News op-ed by Republican water-carrier Ingrid Jacques suggested that Austin was giving “special favors” to LGBTQ students. (Apparently in Jacques’ world of bigotry, being free from intimidation and fear is a “special favor” that LGBTQ kids don’t deserve.)
Even Tucker Carlson’s national conservative blog The Daily Caller got in on the action, spreading misinformation and panic among the anti-LGBTQ community. John Austin wants to allow “all students, regardless of parental or doctoral input, to choose their gender, name, pronouns, and bathrooms”!, they exclaimed.
Tea party and other anti-Common Core groups sent out action alerts encouraging their members to flood the public comment site with anti-LGBTQ talking points. Robocalls were made and postcards sent, all repeating the same misinformation and inflammatory talking points.
In late March, Austin and Whiston agreed to extend the deadline for comments to allow as many people as possible to weigh in. Despite their transparency and very public deliberations, they were absurdly accused of doing it “quietly” and in secret, raising the bigot angst factor in the process.
Reports filtered up to Austin that Eileen Weiser’s husband, Ron Weiser, the former Chair of the Michigan Republican Party and a big dollar donor to conservative and Republican candidates and groups, was threatening to withhold donations from legislators who failed to oppose the guidance document. Although the Weisers both denied this, less than a week later House Republicans slashed funding for the State Board of Education in their budget legislation
The Michigan Department of Education has generated a GOP backlash and complaints of “social engineering” by recommending that public schools adopt transgender-friendly policies but refrain from unilaterally telling parents if students identify with a gender they didn’t have at birth.
A House appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday stripped from a budget bill all travel and per-diem funding for the Democrat-dominated State Board of Education, a move the Republican chairman called “a message” to members who will consider the draft recommendation on May 10.
The amendment, approved in a party-line vote.
Then, a couple of weeks later, legislation was introduced by Republicans to eliminate the State Board of Education completely and to eliminate the state superintendent position, as well. Sen. Tom Casperson has promised to introduce legislation similar to North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” that would force students to use the restroom conforming to their gender at birth.
These are all pretty over-the-top responses to a guidance (not a law or a rule) that would allow students to pee in the restroom corresponding to the gender they identify with.
Finally, The Daily Caller as well as Michigan resident John Howting filed FOIA requests on Austin’s emails, a fishing expedition trying to somehow prove that this very public and well-documented process was somehow going on behind closed doors. You may recall Howting from the 2014 election cycle where he trained Republican staffers on how to infiltrate Democratic events and record them with super secret spy glasses.
You can read Austin’s response to these ridiculous FOIA requests HERE.
All of this looks very much like a bigoted response to a very reasonable proposal. But it’s much more than that, actually. People like me frequently say that “Republicans control every aspect of government in Michigan”. However, that’s not entirely true. The one place where Democrats still maintain a majority is the State Board of Education. And that is at the core of this entire tempest in a piss pot. Republicans cannot stand the fact that they don’t control this group and are using the LGBTQ guidance as a smokescreen for their efforts to either take control or eliminate it entirely.
You can be very sure that when Republicans passed the law preventing straight-ticket ballots in Michigan, this was one of the reasons they did it: straight-ticket voting helps Democrats in less-known races like the State Board of Education and University Boards of Regents and Trustees.
Board of Education member Eileen Weiser’s husband Ron has gave over $300,000 to conservative and Republican candidates and groups between 2013 and 2015. While he may deny he’s using his money as a way to strongarm Republicans, others dispute that claim and he has the financial clout to back up such threats.
Sen. Casperson’s yet-to-be-introduced “bathroom bill” will cause the same type economic hardship for the Michigan as it has for North Carolina and will very likely result in a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s also being spit on by the leaders of a number of major Michigan corporations. In other words, it’s not going anywhere and he knows it.
The fact is Republicans are exploiting anti-LGBTQ bigots and their unreasonable fears about trans kids using what they see as “the wrong bathroom” to help them destroy the last vestige of Democratic Party control. Sadly, using this sort of bigoted attack has worked in other places around the country. It’s the main reason why I and others were against an LGBTQ civil rights ordinance being put on the ballot. We still have a lot of educating to do and, until we’ve done that, anti-LGBTQ bigots will continue to use this issue to gain political power even in areas that seem unrelated.
The Board of Education is taking comments through tomorrow, May 11th. Be sure to weigh in HERE.
But also be sure to understand what this phony issue is all about. It’s not about keeping trans kids from peeing in one bathroom or another. It’s about taking away power from the Democrats in Michigan.
Make no mistake about that.
I’ll finish with the amazing words of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch yesterday when she announced that the Justice Department is suing the state of North Carolina against their discriminatory “bathroom bill”:
[T]his is not a time to act out of fear. This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, diversity, compassion and open-mindedness. What we must not do – what we must never do – is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control, and deny what makes them human. This is why none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not, or invents a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.
Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina. You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm – but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society – all it does is harm innocent Americans.
Instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Let us reflect on the obvious but often neglected lesson that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good in hindsight. It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference. We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without a tremendous amount of pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time. Let us not act out of fear and misunderstanding, but out of the values of inclusion, diversity and regard for all that make our country great.
Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives that you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated, no matter how afraid, and no matter how alone you may feel today, know this: the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. And please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that ideal, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together.
Watch the full statement here: