Mass. Policy to Protect Transgender Students Under Attack by Christian Right

About Alex DiBranco

Alex DiBranco is a PhD Student in Sociology at Yale, studying social movements and the U.S. Christian Right. She was formerly PRA's Communications Director and has written for outlets such as Alternet, The Nation, and

MFIComprehensive guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Education to protect transgender public school students’ safety and prevent discrimination, including in regards to bathrooms and athletics, are under attack by a local Christian Right group.

The Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) is taking credit for turning the Feb. 15th policy announcement into a national news story and “raising the alarm about the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education’s new transgender bathroom policy.” Rush Limbaugh jumped in and the right-wing World News Daily (WND) headlines, “State Mandate: Allow Boys in Girls’ Locker Rooms,” while the Associated Press and other media covering the story quote criticism from MFI spokespeople.

MFI is a Family Policy Council (FPC) group, which “accomplish[es] at the state level what Family Research Council does at the national level – shape public debate and formulate public policy.” Their blog this week urges “parents, grandparents, and concerned MA citizens to partner with us in turning back this radical bathroom policy in our schools” by calling their local school board to “demand that they refuse to implement the Commissioner’s new transgender policy.”

The guidelines are intended to bring the Massachusetts public school system into line with the Transgender Equal Rights Law passed last year. MFI Action, an advocacy wing “consistent with the creation of Focus on the Family, Action; and Family Research Council, Action,” aired transphobic radio ads opposing what they called the “bathroom bill” beginning in 2011. The ads featured a warning to a mother that soon she wouldn’t want to let her daughter go to the bathroom alone, because the legislature planned to “make it legal for men to use women’s bathrooms,” which could allow in a “sexual predator.”

MFI is also asking people to contact their state representatives to criticize the public school directive and ask them to join a bipartisan group seeking to meet with the Commissioner of Education. It requests reports of “cross-gendered bathroom use” in schools, claiming this goes beyond the scope of the law and threatening potential legal action, and promises to work with  “pro-family legislators” on a bill to explicitly prohibit this.

A similar incident occurred last October in Illinois, where “the East Aurora Illinois School Board unanimously passed a policy requiring school officials to respect transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns, and accommodate them in physical education and athletics,” as Miriam Zoila Pérez writes in an article for PRA’s Public Eye magazine. The Illinois Family Institute, a conservative Christian organization affiliated with the American Family Association (AFA), posted on their blog urging readers to object to the board’s “decision to accommodate, not the needs of gender-confused teens, but their disordered desires and the desires of gender/sexuality anarchists who exploit public education for their perverse ends.” An influx of nearly 1,000 emails successfully pushed the school board to reverse its decision. And as in Massachusetts, the policy appeared simply to bring the school system in line with state nondiscrimination law.

“Christian Right groups like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council (FRC), and the American Family Association (AFA) share an aversion to trans people that motivates their campaigns against the East Aurora School Board and other targets,” Perez writes. Their tactics to fight transgender rights and understanding include disparaging “boys who dress as girls” and insisting that “gender identity” is an immoral “choice.”

A Fox News article by Todd Starnes, “Students Who Refuse to Affirm Transgender Classmates Face Punishment,” portrays anti-LGBTQ Christian students as the victims.  The guidelines state that transgender “students, because of widespread misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about their lives, are at a higher risk for peer ostracism, victimization, and bullying,” and that students who commit bullying, in the form of repeatedly and intentionally refusing to refer to transgender students by the pronouns they identify with, are subject to disciplinary action.

Starnes appeared on a panel about “religious liberty” at the Christian Right’s Values Voter Summit in September, following a morning panel with members of the Family Policy Council, and his rhetoric is part of a  broader right-wing agenda. The reframing of “religious liberty” appeared in 2012 marriage equality ballot initiative advertising, as discussed in PRA’s The Right’s Marriage Message, and an upcoming March report from Political Research Associates looks at this strategy in more depth.