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Civil rights groups, Baker say White House is sending misguided signal on transgender rights

Gov. Charlie Baker.Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — Republican Governor Charlie Baker joined civil rights groups from across the country Thursday who expressed dismay over President Trump’s order rolling back federal bathroom rights for transgender students across the country, saying it sends a bad message to a population already at risk of being bullied and victimized in hate crimes.

The Trump order rescinded Obama administration guidance issued last year that instructs schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

It was another example of Trump’s rapid reach into America’s social fabric in his first weeks in office, following his disruption of the flow of refugees and his vow to more aggressively deport immigrants entering the country illegally.


Massachusetts is one of 14 states that adopted their own bathroom protections for transgender students, so such students will not be affected. But transgender students in remaining states, including New Hampshire, will now be subject to local or state rules that could dictate which bathroom they use.

“Here in Massachusetts, kids are going to be protected,” said Baker, who signed the accommodations law last year. Baker broke from his fellow Republicans in Washington and said he was disappointed with the White House’s decision.

“I obviously don’t support the message and I don’t believe it’s the right message,” Baker said at a State House press conference.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer framed the administration’s position as a legal one, calling transgender rights a “state’s rights issue.”

The Obama guidelines weren’t “implemented correctly, legally,” he said, adding that “the proper procedure wasn’t followed.”

The Family Research Council, the conservative Christian advocacy group, welcomed Trump’s decision.

“What we were taught in kindergarten, boys use the boys room and girls use the girls room, was made old-fashioned by liberal bureaucrats,” said a statement by council president Tony Perkins.


Like the immigration orders, which temporarily halted the admission of all refugees and restricted travel from seven nations considered vulnerable to terrorism, the Wednesday move marked another instance in which Trump has rattled families with a stroke of a pen.

In response, transgender rights activists went on the offensive Thursday. Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called the move a “mean-spirited attack” that will “empower bullies” and singles out “those who are different.”

“Federal civil rights are not a state-by-state option. They are a federal law and duty,” said Keisling, a transgender woman.

Trump’s move also intensifies attention on a case before the US Supreme Court, which is set to hear a transgender rights case in late March.

On that day, justices will consider the case of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old high school senior from Virginia. Grimm, a transgender boy who is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, was told that he could not use boys’ restrooms at his Virginia school, which led to the lawsuit.

“When you have a school board send this message that says you are going to be treated differently than all your peers and you are not going to have access to public spaces — that’s sets a huge, huge guideline for how that student will be treated by other peers,” Grimm said on ABC’s “The View” Thursday morning.

According to a 2015 report from the transgender equality center, 54 percent of transgender students reported being verbally harassed in school, 24 percent were physically attacked, and 13 percent said they were sexually assaulted.


Another stark statistic: 40 percent of respondents had attempted suicide in their lifetime — nearly nine times the national average, the report says.

Chase Strangio, an attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS Project, said Trump has put scores of transgender young people in a “precarious position.”

“When the government sends a message that a group of people are unworthy of official protections it makes it harder for those people to navigate the world and get what they need,” Strangio said. “It legitimizes discrimination and violence.”

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat and the first openly gay senator in history, tweeted her displeasure with Trump’s decision.

“Being a president for ‘all Americans’ should include transgender students who deserve schools free of discrimination,” Baldwin said. “A step backward by Trump, but federal law has not changed & schools continue to have a legal & moral obligation to protect all students.”

These are not new fault lines. From issues ranging from slavery to same-sex marriage, proponents of federal civil rights law and states’ rights advocates have battled for years, often without immediate resolution.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime and vocal opponent of LGBT rights — said the change was necessary because documents filed by the Obama administration “did not contain sufficient legal analysis.”

The Obama administration relied on a 1972 law called Title IX, a federal law which says no person should be denied educational benefits on the basis of their sex. In recent years, several states have concluded that the law also applies to sexual orientation. Sessions said the executive branch has no place in picking sides.


“Congress, state legislatures, and local governments are in a position to adopt appropriate policies or laws addressing this issue,” Sessions said.

At a separate press conference Thursday afternoon, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and other state politicians urged the White House to reverse its decision.

Healey, the first openly gay state attorney general in the United States, said that Trump and Sessions have sent a dangerous signal that “went after children.”

“This isn’t about state’s rights or presidential power,” Healey said. “This is about the targeting of an already vulnerable population that has suffered for far too long — suffered discrimination, suffered harassment, and suffered bullying.”

Laura Krantz of Globe staff contributed to this report. Astead Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com.