Wisconsin school district gets sued for treating trans kids with respect

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A group of parents is suing the Madison School District over its gender-affirming policies.

A group of parents is suing a Wisconsin school district over guidance regarding transgender students, claiming that it harms their parental and religious rights.

Civil rights advocates are now involved in the case, John Doe et al v. Madison Metropolitan School District, speaking on behalf of transgender students who say that the guidance protects their safety and well-being.

The Madison Metropolitan School District's guidance on supporting transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive students includes a section called the Gender Support Plan, a document schools are asked to complete when a student comes out as transgender.

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The document, the guidance notes, "creates shared understanding about the ways in which a student's authentic gender will be accounted for and supported at school."

It instructs staff to be respectful of the student's name, pronouns, and gender, as well as their need to access restrooms, locker rooms, and other activities that correspond to their gender.

The guidance specifically tells staff to refer to a student's affirmed name and pronouns and says students have the right to change their name and gender in the the school district's information system. If a student wants to maintain privacy from their family, the school will discuss "contingency plans" with the student in case that privacy is compromised.

It also notes that family correspondence may involve, in some situations, using a student's affirmed name and pronouns in a school setting and their legal name and pronouns with their family.

In a complaint filed back in February, 12 parents within the school district, along with their attorneys, said they opposed the policy because it "enables children, of any age, to socially transition to a different gender identity at school without parental notice or consent" and "directs its teachers and staff to deceive parents by reverting to the child’s birth name and corresponding pronouns whenever the child's parents are nearby."

The parents argued that the gender-affirming guidance violated their parental rights.

In their complaint, they also noted that if their children began to experience gender dysphoria, they "would not immediately 'affirm' their children’s beliefs about their gender identity and allow them to transition to a different gender role, but would instead pursue a treatment approach to help them identify and address the underlying causes of the dysphoria and learn to embrace their biological sex."

The complaint never uses the term "conversion therapy," but it is a practice that assumes that one's sexuality or gender can be changed and that belonging to the LGBTQ community is a mental illness. According to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on preventing suicide among LGBTQ people, the practice "uses a variety of shaming, emotionally traumatic or physically painful stimuli to make their victims associate those stimuli with their LGBTQ identities."

The American Psychological Association opposes it. In 2015, Judith M. Glassgold, the APA's associate executive director for public interest government relations, said that "interventions aimed at a fixed outcome, such as gender conformity or heterosexual orientation, including those aimed at changing gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation, should not be part of behavioral health treatments" for LGBTQ people.

The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network's 2017 National School Climate Survey also found that transgender and gender-nonconforming students are less likely to face discrimination and more likely to be engaged in school when their schools have supportive and inclusive policies.

The district has stood firm behind its guidance, in spite of the parents' lawsuit.

District spokesman Tim LeMonds released a statement earlier this year saying that said the district "prioritizes the safety and well-being of every student" and that it "recognizes its tremendous responsibility to uphold the right of every child to be educated in a safe, all-inclusive and nondiscriminatory learning environment."

On Monday, the ACLU of Wisconsin also filed a motion asking to intervene for three high school student groups that include transgender, nonbinary, or gender-expansive people. The groups want to be allowed to fight the lawsuit as well because they say the district's guidance protects them from the harm they could experience in a hostile home environment.

"The only thing that [plaintiffs] have alleged is that the guidance exists and they don't like the guidance and that is simply not a sufficient reason to challenge the guidance," John Knight, senior staff attorney for the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said in a phone interview.

There are approximately 55 students in all three groups, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, all of whom are additionally represented by the ACLU Foundation's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty is representing the parents who brought the lawsuit. The conservative nonprofit law firm previously represented a conservative professor who blogged about a graduate student after he disagreed with her approach to discussing marriage equality, and included her name and contact information in the post. The student received threats as a result of that post and the professor was suspended on the basis of unprofessional conduct for several semesters.

In 2018, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that he had been improperly suspended.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.