Trump Vows to Block Desegregation Funds for Schools Welcoming Trans Athletes

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump are blending a hateful stew of racism and transphobia in their latest attack on transgender student-athletes.
Reuters/ Jonathan Ernst

The US Department of Education is threatening to withhold federal funds earmarked for racial desegregation initiatives at certain schools in Connecticut in retaliation for their compliance with a policy in that state allowing transgender athletes to participate in accordance with their gender identity.

The threats represent another chapter in the administration’s years-long fixation on sidelining student-athletes who have played under the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), an athletic governing body that has maintained that its rules allowing trans athletes to participate are in compliance with state law.

The right-wing backlash against the policy exploded following the emergence of Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, two Black transgender track and field student-athletes who became the target of a federal civil rights lawsuit championed by cisgender opponents who competed against them in races. At least six cisgender student-athletes and their families have filed lawsuits against the policy.

Department of Education continues aggressive campaign to sideline student-athletes who compete consistent with their gender identity

In February, three of those students, backed by the anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom, filed a lawsuit aimed at the policy in US District Court in Connecticut in which they argued that their “dreams and goals” were foiled because they had to compete against trans athletes.

The Trump administration proceeded to use those complaints as a springboard to issue the funding threats. In June, the DOE declared that the CIAC policy allowing trans athletes to participate in sports violates Title IX, the 1972 law banning sex discrimination in federally-funded academic and athletic programs. That misleading claim by the administration made false and transphobic assertions that the transgender female students are male and that their presence on the playing field created a gender imbalance in athletic programs.

Transgender student-athletes Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller received an award from Athlete Ally last autumn for their perseverance and dedication to LGBTQ athletes.Athlete Ally

The administration ultimately used a 45-page letter to threaten to “either initiate administrative proceedings to suspend, terminate, or refuse to grant or continue and defer financial assistance” for schools that follow the policy.

The DOE then directed schools that receive funds from the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) — which diversifies schools by bringing students from different neighborhoods together to attend a given school — to sign a form indicating that they would not adhere to the Connecticut policy.

Three months later, the administration is vowing to follow through on its threats with plans to defund the MSAP-associated school districts in southeast Connecticut, Hartford, and New Haven, which are now in danger of losing a total of $18 million, according to The New York Times.

When reached by phone on the morning of September 18, a spokesperson with the DOE directed Gay City News to send questions about the reported threats in an email. When asked specifically about the legal justification behind the move, a DOE spokesperson made the legally dubious assertion in an email that those who follow the policy are violating Title IX.

“Congress requires the department to withhold funds from schools that aren’t in compliance with the law,” DOE press secretary Angela Morabito said in a written statement provided to Gay City News. “Connecticut applicants declined — on multiple occasions— to assure the Office for Civil Rights that they are in compliance with Title IX.”

A DOE spokesperson told Gay City News on background that the Office for Civil Rights is now evaluating whether the Groton Pubic Schools in southeast Connecticut has met the criteria set forth in the form provided to MSAP schools earlier this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has represented the transgender student-athletes in Connecticut, did not provide a comment by press time on September 18. A spokesperson for the CIAC declined comment for this story due to ongoing litigation in the case, though a spokesperson offered a strong defense of the policy in a written statement issued in late May.

“Connecticut law is clear and students who identify as female are to be recognized as female for all purposes — including high school sports,” the CIAC spokesperson said on May 28. “To do otherwise would not only be discriminatory but would deprive high school students of the meaningful opportunity to participate in educational activities, including inter-scholastic sports, based on sex-stereotyping and prejudice sought to be prevented by Title IX and Connecticut state law.”

The state of Connecticut would seem to have the stronger legal argument here, since the US Supreme Court in June ruled that the sex discrimination protections provided by the employment provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII outlaw discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Interpretations of other federal nondiscrimination laws, such as Title IX, typically track precedents established under Title VII, so that discrimination against transgender students would be deemed sex discrimination outlawed by Title IX.

It is not the first time DeVos has used transgender students as a weapon in the administration’s all-out assault on trans Americans. Early in her tenure with the Trump administration, she oversaw the rescinding of Obama-era rules requiring schools receiving federal funds to allow trasngender students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

The administration’s threats, which would impact the plight of both transgender students and students of color, follow two disturbing patterns: The president’s longstanding and comprehensive opposition to transgender rights and his explicit pandering to racist white voters in suburban America. Just as the administration issued the new threats in Connecticut, Trump delivered a dark speech on September 17 when he blasted the New York Times’ 1619 Project — which spotlights truths about the earliest days of America’s history of slavery — and unveiled his outlandish plans to counter that project with an executive order forming a “1776 Commission” aimed at creating a “patriotic education” mandate for the nation’s youth.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has taken its attacks on transgender student-athletes nationwide with a lobbying effort geared toward convincing Republicans to advance pieces of legislation intended to prevent transgender student-athletes from playing in sports.

The issue has boiled over In Idaho, where lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year banning trans girls from the playing field. After a federal judge temporarily blocked that law, the Alliance Defending Freedom — which is representing student-athletes at Idaho State University — filed an appeal of that ruling on September 16.

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