The Obama administration will tell U.S. public schools on Friday that transgender students must have access to bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
The joint guidance (pdf) from the Departments of Education (DOE) and Justice (DOJ) "sends a clear message to transgender students across the country," said Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division: "Here in America, you are safe, you are protected, and you belong—just as you are."
"As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others' discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students to ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex."
The document does not lay out any new policy or propose any new law, but "makes clear that both federal agencies treat a student's gender identity as the student's sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX," according to a DOJ statement.
The federal anti-discrimination law in education, Title IX, says that schools receiving federal funds may not discriminate based on a student's sex.
As such, the New York Times notes, the letter "contains an implicit threat: Schools that do not abide by the Obama administration's interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid."
The DOE also released a compilation of examples (pdf) of ways that schools nationwide are already successfully supporting transgender students, highlighting "sensible ways that schools around the country have been able to address concerns from other students and parents without infringing upon transgender students' civil rights."
The letter states: "As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others' discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students to ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex."
Civil rights and LGBTQ advocates praised the development, which comes amid state-level fights over the rights of transgender people.
"Today's guidance will be instrumental for school districts to understand their legal obligations in light of the legal response to North Carolina's harmful and regressive HB2," read a statement from the Human Rights Campaign, referring to the recently-passed anti-LGBT law that, in part, prohibits public school students from using restrooms and other school facilities consistent with their gender identity.
"With this guidance, the Education and Justice Departments are making it crystal clear what schools' obligations to transgender students are under federal law," added James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project. "It's about time schools understand that transgender students are fully protected. We owe our country's future leaders the freedom to be themselves during these crucial and formative years."