12:47, February 24 489 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-24 12:47:10
Just the facts  Why did Trump's government reverse transgender rights?

Hello, I hope you are doing OK. If you are an undocumented immigrant, a Native American or a transgender student I’m guessing that you have had a tough week.

Thanks for getting in touch with your comments and questions. I’m getting the feeling that you don’t just want a fact-checking column that exposes falsehoods, you want to discover truths. Truths about the effects of policy, but also about the motivation for those policies. Like why would the Trump administration decide to reverse protections for transgender students this week?

Let’s try to figure this out together.

Step 1: Look for a policy document to find out what the administration actually said on this subject. On Wednesday night (at 7.08pm ET – why announce this when so many journalists have left the office?), the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued guidance that withdrew previous guidance.

Confusing, I know.

In 2015 and 2016, the Obama administration issued guidance saying that transgender students should be able to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. In other words, if you are a transgender person who identifies as a woman, you should be able to use the women’s bathroom. Those protections have now been withdrawn.

Step 2: Find the stated rationale for the policy.

Well, there isn’t much to go on here. Wednesday’s document says that the old guidance did not “contain extensive legal analysis or … any formal public process”. The document also says that this should be decided by states rather than at the federal level: “there must be due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts”.

Step 3: Check rationale for policy. Why should this be decided at the state level? Do transgender Americans’ bathroom needs vary from state to state? (I’m not even sure what I would Google to check that.) But hey, you can marry your cousin in some US states but not others, so I guess that state laws don’t necessarily have to be based on regional needs.

Hmm. Maybe this guidance is coming out now simply because the Trump administration thinks it will be popular among Trump supporters.

Step 4: Check support for policy. I Google the words “support for bathroom” and Google automatically adds the word “bill”. I also add the word “Pew” to my internet search since I know that Pew research center conducts some of the most rigorous and impartial surveys of American opinion.

I press the button that says “tools” and filter for results that were published in the past year. I want recent numbers.

The first link takes me to a Pew survey which finds that US adults are almost evenly split on this issue – 46% say transgender people should be required to use public bathrooms that match the gender they were born into while 51% say they should be allowed to use bathrooms that match the gender they currently identify with. The other 3% of respondents didn’t provide an answer.

Step 5: Find out why people support such a policy. I Google “Republican stances transgender bathroom” and find a story from Politico that quotes Ted Cruz as saying “Grown adult men, strangers, should not be alone in a bathroom with little girls”.

Now I do a video search to see if I can check that quote. I find footage of Cruz saying it.

There are more. At a town hall event in January 2016, a member of the audience tells Cruz about a transgender student who uses the teachers’ shower rather than having to chose between the boys or girls facilities. Cruz responds, “I don’t know the facts of that but I’ll say that inflicting him on the teachers is probably better than sticking him in the shower with the teenage boys”. The crowd laughs.

Cruz is clearly not alone. Once I start looking for people who are afraid of transgender Americans, there are plenty: the attorney who tweets that she wants to take a gun into a bathroom with her. The columnist who writes “the thought of allowing anatomical males inside public school facilities used by young girls is enough to keep you up at night”.

Trump’s stance is a little harder to pin down. As a candidate, he explicitly said he would reverse this guidance but he has also said: “You’ve got to protect all people, even though it’s a tiny percentage of 1 percent” and, in another interview, said “People go; they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble.”

That’s not the only inconsistency here. Because conspicuously missing from any rhetoric on the so-called “bathroom ban” is any concern for the safety of transgender students.

Step 6: Find out if the policy could be harmful. I have researched the transgender population of the US several times before and know that you hit a lot of dead ends. Because there aren’t any good national statistics collected by the government, just studies conducted by academic institutions and activist groups.

So, this time I use Google scholar (a search engine for academic papers) and find a study published in the Journal of Homosexuality last year. It found that students who were denied access to a school bathroom were more likely to attempt suicide. I also find a paper where 70% of transgender people in Washington reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. The paper comes from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law – they’re also the source of the estimate that around 0.3% of the US population is transgender.

I reread Wednesday’s guidance from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Close to the end it says “all schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment” which seems, well, unlikely if this new guidance is followed.

I wonder if anyone at the Trump administration bothers to check Google scholar.

Would you like to see something fact-checked? Send me your questions! mona.chalabi@theguardian.com / @MonaChalabi