The Obama administration sent a letter Friday advising public school administrators to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their self-selected gender identity, taking a step that mirrors guidance issued by the Maine Human Rights Commission in January.

While neither is backed by the force of law, they are nearly identical in their intent to establish a standard by which schools treat students who identify psychologically as male or female, regardless of their biological gender. Both advise schools to let the student decide.

Still, reactions to the guidance were mixed among government officials – and students – in Maine, where a landmark ruling in 2014 marked the first time a state court affirmed the right of a transgender student to use the bathroom corresponding with her current gender identity.

The issue first arose in Maine in 2007, when Nicole Maines, then a fifth-grader at Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono, was instructed to use a staff bathroom after a grandparent of another student, a boy, complained that Maines was allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Maines was born a biological male but later testified that she had always identified as female.

The Maine Human Rights Commission found in 2009 that the school district had engaged in unlawful discrimination in education and public accommodations because of Nicole’s sexual orientation and sued in Superior Court along with Nicole’s parents, Wayne and Kelly Maines. They amended the lawsuit in 2010 after Nicole Maines also was prohibited from using the girls’ bathroom at Orono Middle School.

An attorney for the Orono School District, now known as Riverside RSU 26, argued in court that school officials had worked closely with Maines and her mother before the 2007 incident to develop a formal plan on how she would be treated and had discussed what would happen if others complained about her using the girls’ bathroom.


The case went all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled in Maines’ favor in December 2014.

Maines said Friday via email that she is thrilled about the Obama administration’s guidance.

“It speaks volumes that our nation’s leader is supporting all Americans and saying that this country is for everyone, and that everyone will be guaranteed the same rights,” she said.

Maines said she is proud to think that her own struggle may have played a role in creating a safer environment for people in Maine and across the nation.

“No one should have to live their life in fear, in hiding, and certainly not in the wrong bathroom,” she said.

In January, the Maine Human Rights Commission issued guidance to reflect its interpretation of the Maines ruling on the Maine Human Rights Act. The guidance says schools should allow any student with a “sincerely held” gender identity to be recognized in all ways as that gender, including using bathrooms, playing sports, being addressed by a preferred name and pronoun, and being allowed to dress as preferred.


It also says the school should abide by the wishes of the student while at school, even if the student’s parent or legal guardian disagrees. However, Gov. Paul LePage stopped the guidance from becoming the basis for rule-making, saying the Legislature should pass a law before regulations are imposed.

The Obama administration’s guidance issued Friday is similar in language to the Human Rights Commission’s letter. It says public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex. Both the Maine and federal guidelines apply only to public schools.

Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Anne Gabbianelli said Friday that the department still considers the issue to be in the hands of local school districts. The department is reviewing the guidance letter, she said.

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, said any Maine public school that prohibits a transgender student’s use of bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity likely would be in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act.

“The Maine Human Rights Commission’s statutory power is to investigate claims of alleged violations of the Maine Human Rights Act that are filed with our agency,” Sneirson said in an email. “If we do so, and find that there are reasonable grounds to believe discrimination occurred, then the commission has statutory authority to file a lawsuit to stop/remedy the discrimination in the public interest. After such a finding of ‘reasonable grounds,’ a student/parents also have a right to file a lawsuit.”

Still, she said the Maines ruling does not automatically ensure a similar victory for all other students who may challenge school bathroom restrictions.


“Every fact scenario is totally distinct, so it is impossible to make categorical statements about hypothetical scenarios,” Sneirson said.

The Obama administration’s guidance follows dueling state and federal lawsuits in North Carolina over a recently passed state law that requires transgender people to use the public restroom matching the sex on their birth certificate.

The U.S. Justice Department said the law violates the civil rights of transgender people against sex discrimination on the job and in education. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory accused the Justice Department of government overreach. Each is now suing the other.

In general, adults seem more interested in fighting over the issue than the students themselves.

At Portland High School on Friday, students said they know of a few openly transgender students, but their choice of bathroom hasn’t caused a problem or sparked any discussion at school.

Adri Bukarac, 16, a sophomore, and Mia Hatt, 17, a senior, said they had heard about the administration’s directive through the news and agreed that transgender students should be shielded from discriminatory rules. While the issue of transgender rights isn’t a hot topic at Portland High, Hatt suspects there could be problems under the surface.


“It’s nothing I’ve experienced, but I’m sure there is some discrimination happening,” she said.

Some students, however, felt uncomfortable with the idea of sharing a bathroom with students who identify as one gender, but are still biologically another. Giovanni Ruotolo, 16, Dom Tucci, 16, and Harry Gates, 17, said they don’t have a problem with transgender students but the use of bathrooms should be reserved for people from that sex.

“I feel like if you haven’t had a sex change yet, you have to use the bathroom based on your birth certificate,” Ruotolo said.

Brianna Guptil, 18, a senior, said she knew a student who started at Portland High identifying as a male and using the boys’ bathroom, then changed gender identity during high school. Now a senior, the student chooses to use the girls’ bathroom, she said.

“No one really cares,” she said, adding that there is no discrimination. “We don’t mind them using the bathroom.”

Staff Writer Peter McGuire contributed to this report.


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