OKLAHOMA CITY – Since issuance of a May 13 “guidance letter” from the Obama administration, transgender rights – most prominently touching public school bathroom policies – have propelled wide-ranging discussion about schools in the United States, including Oklahoma.
On Thursday, May 26, a press conference sponsored by Freedom Oklahoma, a group advocating for civil rights, brought together several advocates who decried support for House Concurrent Resolution 1021 and previously proposed laws aiming to oppose federal education policies detailed in the guidance letter.
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, convened the press briefing.
Among his comments were a promise to work for the defeat of proposals and people pressing back against the federal transgender policy. He said stepss would be taken in such a way that politicians “won’t know who it is” organizing opposition.
In a Facebook post, Stevenson wrote, “To our opposition: we beat, blocked, and killed your ignorant bill not once, not twice, but three times THIS WEEK, and four times this session. We are done playing defense! We are going on offense and on our terms -- in your districts and at the ballot box. We will not roll over, we will not surrender, we will not forgive, and WE WILL NEVER FORGET!!!”
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Oklahoma, said proposals countering the Obama administration’s steps were “shameful, disgraceful and despicable.” He asserted that consideration of the measures in the midst of budget debates amounted “balancing the budget on the backs of children.”
Kiesel joined Stevenson in announcing formation of “Oklahoma Competes,” a group aiming to prevent future measures opposing transgender issues.
Another speaker at the May 26 conference, attorney Alyssa Bryant of Tulsa, contended points made in the guidance letter encompass “long-standing policies” representative of “consistent” positions” from the federal government. Rev. Lori Walke, from Oklahoma City’s Mayflower Congregational Church, also spoke at the press event.
Paula Sophia Schonauer, perhaps the best known transgender person in Oklahoma City, was another speaker. A former Oklahoma City police officer, Schonauer described various stages in her life, including fatherhood, ministry and law enforcement work, as preludes to a transition to female gender identity.
Although an unsuccessful legislative candidate in 2014 (as a Democrat), Schonauer fell just short of securing the Democratic nomination in House District 88, in an election decided in the Democratic primary. (Jason Dunnington prevailed, and is now the incumbent seeking reelection.) Schonauer has continued to speak out on transgender and other issues.
A day earlier, on Wednesday, May 25, Freedom Oklahoma’s Stevenson had said in a statement,
“As we face a budget crisis unprecedented in size and scope, it is unconscionable to consider a measure that would so greatly impact the financial well being of our schools and so deeply hurt transgender Oklahomans. This legislation would cost our state at least three quarters of a billion dollars in federal education funding, which we simply cannot afford. But even in the healthiest economy, legislation aimed to strip away the dignity, the livelihood, and the most basic rights of transgender Oklahomans must never be tolerated.”
Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt is among a group of attorneys general, led by Texas, opposing the “guidance letter” themes.
H.C.R. 1021, filed on may May 25, asserted that “each school district has a responsibility to provide a safe and respectful learning environment for all students” and that “decisions and policies regarding the safe and respectful learning environment for students, including decisions and policies on nondiscrimination of transgender students and other policies related to transgender students, have historically been a matter of local control and set by boards of education of school districts.”
The measure backed Pruitt in taking “certain actions” to fight “federal government overreach” in the matter. The measure encouraged Oklahoma school districts to ignore the federal guidance while working to support and respect all students.
In the House of Representatives on Thursday (May 26), the measure passed by unanimous consent without discussion. In interviews with The City Sentinel, the lack of discussion and debate, and the presence of no opposing voice votes were confirmed by members of both political parties in the Legislature.
House sponsors of the concurrent resolution, all Republicans, included state Reps. John Bennett of Oklahoma City, Ann Coody of Lawton, Dan Fisher of El Reno, Sally Kern of Oklahoma City, Sean Roberts of Hominy, George Faught of Muskogee, Chuck Strohm of Jenks, Steve Vaughan of Ponca City, David Brumbaugh of Broken Arrow, Paul Wesselhoft of Moore, Lewis Moore of Arcadia, Dennis Johnson of Duncan, Justin Wood of Shawnee, Travis Dunlap of Bartlesville, Jadine Nollan of Sand Springs, Kevin Calvey of Oklahoma City, Mike Ritze of Broken Arrow, Todd Russ of Cordell, Michael Rogers of Broken Arrow, and Terry O’Donnell of Tulsa.
At mid-morning Friday (May 27), the state Senate adopted the measure by voice vote. Action was taken “without questions or debate,” multiple sources confirmed.
In the upper chamber, sponsors of H.C.R. 1021 included Republican Sens. Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, Greg Treat of Oklahoma City, Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, Nathan Dahm of Tulsa, Anthony Sykes of Moore, Mike Mazzei of Tulsa, Dan Newberry of Tulsa, Joseph Silk of Broken Bow, and Kim David of Porter.
Weeks of controversy and debate have followed the distribution of the original “Dear Colleague” letter from high-ranking officials of the Obama administration.
The letter conveyed what the administration described as “a school’s Title IX obligations regarding transgender students and explains how the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) evaluate a school’s compliance with these obligations.” The two officials described the letter as “significant guidance,” a term of art for required behavior by recipients of federal funding.
They contended, “This guidance does not add requirements to applicable law, but provides information and examples to inform recipients about how the Departments evaluate whether covered entities are complying with their legal obligations.”
The letter defined a range of terms, including transgender. The document described transgender people as “those individuals whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.”
In the narrative concerning “compliance with Title IX,” Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education and Vanita Gupta,Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Justice made clear that compliance with their “significance guidance” was required.
They wrote to public school officials nationwide:
“As a condition of receiving Federal funds, a school agrees that it will not exclude, separate, deny benefits to, or otherwise treat differently on the basis of sex any person in its educational programs or activities unless expressly authorized to do so under Title IX or its implementing regulations. The Departments treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations.”
The communication drew immediate and sharp criticism from members of Congress and some public school officials, including Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.
Critics gave particular stress to on a portion with the sub-head, “sex-segregated activities and facilities.”
Llamon and Gupta wrote in that section, “A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
On the day the “significant guidance” letter was released, Superintendent Hofmeister commented, “I believe this is an outrageous overreach by the federal government. It nearly defies belief that the Obama Administration now wants to direct how Oklahoma schools and districts operate our bathrooms. Furthermore, I find it disturbing that this ‘joint guidance’ carries an implicit threat of loss of federal funds. In the midst of a historic funding crisis for public education, schools should not be burdened with this sort of overreach yet again.
“Educators have a responsibility to ensure that every child is safe, treated with respect, and given the opportunity to learn. Oklahoma schools know the needs of our students and communities, and meeting those needs should solely remain a matter of local control.”
In the state Legislature, several proposed substantive responses were drafted and began to edge through the legislative process.
When one proposed law passed the Senate Appropriations and Budget Commitee on Friday (May 20), Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said, “The Senate believes in local control of schools because parents and teachers are best equipped to make decisions on what's best for students. Senate Bill 1619 doesn't provide instruction on whether schools should follow the recent edict of the federal government.”
In a statement sent to The City Sentinel, Bingman said, “This bill isn't a commentary on transgender students. Senate Republicans want schools to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students. This measure is about doing what's best for all students in Oklahoma schools by ensuring schools that make the decision to accommodate transgender students regarding showers and locker room facilities also accommodate students who would object to those arrangements because of their deeply held religious beliefs.”
After state and national business leaders said such proposals might threaten economic development in the state, momentum for the pro-active measures to counter the federal “guidance” slowed quickly. In the end, only the non-binding concurrent resolution cleared both chambers.