By Casey Parks
Transgender students across Oregon should be able to use the bathrooms, names and pronouns they want, according to unprecedented guidelines released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education.
In a sweeping 15-page document the department issued what are likely to be controversial suggestions for Oregon educators -- directing them to allow transgender females to play girls sports, for example, and transgender men to wear tuxedos to prom.
They also suggest school leaders use transgender students' preferred names, even if that differs from a legal name, on all transcripts and diplomas. And they say the state will require no proof before changing a student's gender in Oregon records.
"A student who says she is a girl and wishes to be regarded that way throughout the school day should be respected and treated like any other girl," the document reads. "So too with a student who says he is a boy."
Oregon joins a handful of states that have issued similarly explicit recommendations, issuing its guidelines amid an increasingly heated conversation over transgender identity and discrimination. On Wednesday, the federal Justice Department warned North Carolina that it cannot bar transgender people from using the bathrooms that match their gender identities.
Districts across the country, including many in Oregon, are seeing students come out for the first time. School leaders nationwide have wrestled over decisions about which locker rooms and bathrooms transgender students should use.
Though the federal government has sided with transgender students in two recent cases, Oregon educators have told state leaders that they were unsure how to navigate the cultural shift.
In February, Dallas School District Superintendent Michelle Johnstone wrote Gov. Kate Brown to ask for help.
The small town west of Salem has been embroiled in a civil rights debate since last fall, when Dallas High School's principal agreed to let a transgender male use the boys locker room.
Parents and other students were outraged. They demanded the student be barred from the boys locker room. The district's lawyer warned the board that they would be sued -- and likely lose the suit -- if they caved to community pressure. Residents contacted other lawyers who said the district's counsel was wrong.
"There appears to be conflict regarding the intent of the Oregon Equality Act," Johnstone wrote to Brown, referencing a state law that bars discrimination on the basis of sex.
The document released Thursday is a response to requests such as those.
To create the statewide recommendations, a group of Oregon Department of Education employees studied cases across in the country. Last November, for instance, the U.S. Department of Education ruled that an Illinois school district violated federal Title IX regulations when administrators prevented a transgender female from using the girls' facilities.
Then, in April, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a transgender male student who wishes to the use the boy's bathroom at his rural Virginia high school.
Oregon's document does not lay out punishments for districts that ignore its suggestions, but U.S. Department of Education regulators have warned schools in other states that they could lose federal funding if they discriminate against transgender students.
Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York's departments of educations have released similar guidelines.
Though bathrooms have garnered much of the national debate about transgender students, Oregon's document reaches far beyond those gendered facilities.
Under Oregon's guidelines, transgender students should be allowed to change their names and pronouns, even if they have no proof that they intend to transition. The state says also educators should use the name a transgender student prefers -- even if it does not match their legal name.
"There is no need for the student to prove their new gender," the report says. "The student's declaration of their gender is acceptable."
That means school leaders should issue new badges and keep a transgender student's legal name confidential. The student's chosen name should appear, instead of a legal name, on attendance sheets and gradebooks.
When transgender students graduate, the department says schools should give them two transcripts and diplomas -- one with their legal name and one with their preferred name.
The guidelines also clarify state leaders' position on bathrooms: Though students can ask to use unisex bathrooms or locker rooms, school leaders should not force them to use those facilities. Instead, transgender students should be allowed to choose which facilities they use.
The state group also says transgender students should not be barred from participating in any activities, physical education or sports. If a student tells the principal that she identifies as female, she should be able to play female sports.
Lori Porter, a spokeswoman for Beaverton-based Parents Rights in Education, said her group disagrees with the education department's reading of state and federal laws.
"Federal law is clear," the group said in a statement, "that there are no legal grounds to require school districts to open up their bathrooms and changing rooms to members of the opposite biological sex."
But LGBTQ activists said the state had spent a lot of time crafting "thoughtful" guidelines.
"This is a wonderful first step for the Oregon Department of Education to really give guidance to these school districts to ensure that all transgender students have access to safe and affirming environments," said Andrea Zekis, a policy director for LGBTQ advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon.
"There are transgender students throughout the state of Oregon," she continued. "Providing a place of privacy and safety ensures students can grow up to be an adult who can participate in all aspects of life. They should have same opportunities as everybody."
(c)2016 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)