The last time Karen Dolan met with Department of Education officials several years ago, the mood was upbeat and receptive. She and her transgender daughter urged department leaders to do more to support trans students, and she said the meeting helped spur the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance that public schools must allow trans kids to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.
On Wednesday, Dolan found herself back in the same Education Department room, but the feeling this time was subdued. President Donald Trump’s administration just rescinded the Obama-era guidance that protected the rights of transgender students. Dolan, her daughter and a small group of other families implored Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to respect the rights of their children. The families were joined by representatives of advocacy groups, including Equality Michigan, GLSEN and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“The contrast couldn’t be more stark,” Dolan said, comparing her meetings with DeVos and with former Secretary Arne Duncan. “Those were kids who were excited and being seen, being valued, being supported. This was a room of people who had been devastated.”
Dolan’s daughter, Grace, a high school junior, has experienced what it feels like to go to an unsupportive school. While Grace was transitioning in the eighth grade, her suburban Washington middle school wouldn’t let her use the bathroom for her gender. Her grades slipped, she faced bullying, and she struggled with depression.
“I felt like I didn’t belong in the world,” Grace, who has since switched school districts, told The Huffington Post.
“If you’re human you would be moved. I think she was moved."
Dolan and the other parents of transgender children talked to DeVos about the high costs of failing to protect LGBTQ students. DeVos has publicly defended the Trump administration’s reversal of the LGBTQ protections, although reports have surfaced that she disagreed with the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the decision.
“We wanted her to know how many lives will be devastated, how many young lives will be devastated,” Dolan said. “Trans children who are not in supportive environments suffer far greater rates of suicide.”
DeVos didn’t say much in response, but listened attentively, Dolan said.
“If you’re human, you would be moved. I think she was moved,” said Dolan. “But there was no acknowledgement that anything would change. No offer of any action.”
JR Ford, who was at the meeting with his 6-year-old transgender daughter, said DeVos seemed “appreciative of our perspective and context” and was “very respectful.”
But Ford said the meeting left him with a lot of questions. His daughter is racially mixed, and he said he was concerned about issues she might face as a transgender student of color.
Ford’s daughter spent the meeting coloring and drawing pictures. When it ended, Ford and his wife presented DeVos with a signed copy of It’s OK to Sparkle, a children’s book by 9-year-old Avery Jackson, who recently became the first transgender individual to appear on the cover of National Geographic.
DeVos released a statement after the meeting saying she was “grateful for the opportunity to speak directly with these families, students and community leaders about their concerns, thoughts, fears and suggestions.”
“I remain committed to advocating for and fighting on behalf of all students,” she said. “Today’s meeting was compelling, moving and welcomed, and part of an ongoing dialogue with families and students throughout the country.”
Dolan said she has low expectations that DeVos and the rest of the Trump administration will reverse course. But now that DeVos “has looked into the faces of our children,” Dolan hopes the secretary “follows her conscience and does whatever it takes to protect them.”