Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his resignation Friday, leaving a record praised by activists for its pro-LGBT achievements.
Duncan’s intention to step down in December after nearly seven years, reported earlier in the day by the Associated Press, was confirmed by the Washington Blade. A White House spokesperson said Obama intends to appoint John B. King Jr., who currently handles the functions of Deputy Secretary of Education, to head the Education Department in an acting capacity for the remainder of the administration.
David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of government affairs, said Duncan’s leadership in the administration has made him “a trailblazer in protecting LGBT students.”
“Secretary Duncan has fundamentally changed the lives of countless LGBT students,” Stacy said. “At a time when few states recognized marriage equality, Secretary Duncan sent a critical signal to teachers and school administrators that they must welcome and respect LGBT students and create a learning environment that enables all students to succeed, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Most importantly, Secretary Duncan’s work to protect transgender students will help increase the potential for transgender and gender non-conforming students to be safe at school, to stay in school, and to succeed in school.”
Below are six accomplishments Duncan spearheaded for LGBT students and same-sex couples during his tenure as education secretary:
- Affirmed trans students are protected under Title IX
In 2014, the Education Department sent guidance to colleges, universities and public schools on handling sexual violence on campus. Embedded in this Q&A was a passage affirming discrimination and harassment of transgender students is prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
“Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation,” the guidance says.
The guidance builds off an earlier “Dear Colleague” letter the Education Department sent to schools in 2010 warning them that permitting anti-LGBT bullying may violate Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender.
The Obama administration has adjudicated anti-LGBT bullying in schools based on this principle. For example, the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota in 2012 was forced to change policies after allegations administrators were allowing widespread anti-gay bullying.
- Affirmed right of students to form gay-straight alliances
Duncan in 2011 affirmed in a “Dear Colleague” letter to schools the right of students to form gay-straight alliances to assist LGBT students, saying the groups promote safe schools and foster affirming learning environments.
“Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community,” Duncan wrote. “Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students.”
According to the letter, the Equal Access Act of 1984 requires schools to treat GSAs equal to other groups regardless of the subject matter discussed at meetings, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Decided to count same-sex parents for college financial aid
In a more controversial decision, Duncan announced in 2013 the Education Department would begin to count married same-sex couples as equal to opposite-sex couples for the purposes of federal student financial aid.
Under the new guidance, a student or a parent of a student, is considered married if they’re in a same-sex marriage when applying for aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
“We must continue to ensure that every single American is treated equally in the eyes of the law, and this important guidance for students is another step forward in that effort,” Duncan said. “As students fill out their FAFSA this coming year, I’m thrilled they’ll be able to do so in a way that is more fair and just.”
The move was considered controversial because the new policy results in some cases for students having to pay more out of their pocket for education. It was also handed down before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which meant students for a time may have had to pay more for education when the federal government wasn’t recognizing same-sex marriages for the purposes of positive benefits.
- Spoke out against bullying leading to gay youth suicides
Amid a rash of reports in 2010 of students perceived as gay dying by suicide, Duncan issued a statement decrying the bullying that led to their deaths and calling on people to “stand up and speak out against intolerance.”
“This is a moment where every one of us – parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience – needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms,” Duncan said. “Whether it’s students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion; or an adult, public official harassing the president of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay, it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop.”
The statement was issued after Raymond Chase, a sophomore at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, took his own life. The death followed the suicides of other teens perceived as gay in California, Indiana and Texas.
- Endorsed the Student Non-Discrimination Act, the Safe Schools Improvement Act
In 2012, Duncan on the same day as President Obama endorsed two pieces of legislation seeking to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in schools: the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
“Bullying can no longer be seen as a normal rite of passage,” Duncan said. “As a country, we must all work together to take action against bullying and improve the safety climates of our schools and communities. That’s why I support the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.”
The Student Non-Discrimination Act is modeled after Title IX and prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, including by allowing bullying against LGBT students. The Safe Schools Improvement Act requires schools to adopt LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying codes and report data to the federal government. Both bills are still pending before Congress.
- Endorsed marriage equality two days before Obama
The notion that Vice President Joseph Biden’s endorsement of marriage equality on “Meet the Press” in 2012 led to President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage days later is widely assumed. But what’s less known is that Duncan added to the media pressure on Obama’s position on marriage during the period between the Biden and Obama announcements.
In an appearance on MSNBC the day after Biden’s interview was aired, Mark Halperin asked Duncan whether he supported same-sex marriage. The secretary’s response was succinct: “Yes, I do.”
Duncan’s remarks made him the second Cabinet secretary to come out for same-sex marriage. In November, Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Shaun Donovan became the first public official to announce support for marriage equality.
That day, then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney addressed Duncan’s words by saying the secretary “was asked a question about his personal views on an issue and he offered them.” Obama would come out for marriage equality two days later.