September 28, 2017 at 10:46 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Trans students lead effort to defend Frederick County policy
Frederick County, gay news, Washington Blade

‘What’s been inspiring to see are these transgender student activists on the ground responding to this lawsuit,’ said Mark Procopio, executive director of Free State Justice. (Photo courtesy Facebook)

A group of transgender students and their supporters in Frederick County, Md., have emerged as the leading force in defense of a controversial policy approved in June by the county’s Board of Education to protect transgender students from discrimination in the public schools.

The policy, among other things, allows students to choose which bathroom or school locker room to use based on the gender with which they identify regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. It also allows transgender students to participate in sports that are consistent with their gender identity.

“Gender identity is a protected status in Frederick County Public Schools,” the policy declares. “The purpose of this policy is to prevent discrimination, harassment, and bullying of students who are transgender or who are gender nonconforming and to create school cultures that are safe, welcoming, and affirming for all students,” it states.

After several months of deliberations and public hearings the Frederick County Board of Education approved the sweeping policy on June 14 by a vote of 5 to 1 with one board member absent and not voting. School officials said the county school system had been carrying out the policy in practice for the past several years and the vote by the school board essentially codified what had already been in effect.

But the vote in June prompted opponents to turn out in full force at the meeting in which the vote took place, claiming the policy would violate student privacy and lead to sexual assaults in girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.

The opponents dismissed assertions by school officials that the policy includes a provision allowing any student the option of using alternate bathroom or locker room facilities if they are uncomfortable using facilities that transgender students might use.

The scope of the opposition intensified in August when an attorney associated with the anti-LGBT legal group Alliance for Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit calling for overturning the policy. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on behalf of a female student and her mother, whose identities are disguised with the pseudonyms Mary Smith and Jane Doe.

In what some legal observers have called unusually inflammatory language, the lawsuit compares a policy that it says would “force children to undress and shower with or in front of members of the opposite sex,” to “the imagery from the horrors of Nazi death camps our nation valiantly liberated through victory in World War II.”

The unidentified minor plaintiff, said to be a 15-year-old girl, “is concerned that at any moment a male who identifies as female will enter her bath facility at school and she will feel humiliated, embarrassed and violated,” the lawsuit states.

“Such humiliation, stress and government pressure has made minor Plaintiff feel belittled, ostracized if she were to speak out and request privacy, and intimidated into potentially undressing in front of males in her locker room just to avoid the stigma of being required to leave,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit calls on the court to approve a permanent injunction forcing the school system to discontinue the policy.

The 34-page lawsuit names the Frederick County Board of Education and each of its seven members as defendants. Also named as defendants are the Frederick County Public Schools and schools Superintendent Theresa Alban.

Mark Procopio, executive director of Free State Justice, a Maryland LGBT legal advocacy group, said a recently formed group called Support Frederick County Public Schools Trans Students has been arranging for trans students, their parents and supporters to speak out in support of the policy.

According to Procopio and Dana Beyer, executive director of the transgender advocacy group Gender Rights Maryland, none of the predictions of dire problems in the Frederick County schools has materialized since the policy was adopted in practice six years ago. And no such problems have surfaced since the school board approved the policy in June.

“What’s been particularly inspiring to see are these transgender student activists on the ground responding to this lawsuit by making sure that people are educated and aware of it,” Procopio said. “They launched their “# IAmFrederick” campaign, which has been getting more and more people participating on social media who are learning about the policy and showing displays of support for the policy and these students,” he said.

“You’ve got community members, politicians, candidates, parents, students, teachers and faculty in the district who are participating in this ‘I Am Frederick’ campaign supporting the policy,” said Procopio.

Emmitsburg, Md., attorney Daniel Lewis Cox, who is affiliated with the Alliance for Defending Freedom and who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, declined comment when contacted by the Washington Blade.

Also declining comment was Baltimore attorney Donald Eugene English, who is representing the Frederick Board of Education and each of the individual board members named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Court records show that English filed a motion seeking an extension of time to file an answer to the lawsuit. The motion says the defense plans to combine the official response to the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss the case.

When asked if Free State Justice was considering filing an amicus or Friend of the Court brief in support of the Frederick school board and school system’s transgender policy, Procopio said he could not comment on that question at this time.

“I might be able to talk more about that in the coming week or two,” he said.

“We feel strongly that there is not much merit to this lawsuit,” he added. “But the fact that it’s being brought is causing a shift or reframing of this whole policy in public discourse and we want to make sure people understand what this policy is about and what it’s not about so that the overwhelming support with which it was passed earlier this year can continue,” he said.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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