On Friday, the Obama administration issued a directive for schools regarding transgender students' access to bathrooms and locker rooms, one of the most direct signals yet of its stance that gender identity is a civil rights issue.
The directive, formulated by leaders in the Education and Justice Departments, obliges public schools to allow transgender students to use bathroom and locker rooms that match their chosen gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.
"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive.
The directive is intended to clarify how school districts that receive federal funding can comply with Title IX, which "protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance." Schools are obligated to treat students according to their chosen gender identity, and there is no obligation for students to present a medical diagnoses for the change, according to the directive.
The Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, commended the move.
"This is a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people, sending a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools," HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement.
The directive comes at a time when transgender individuals are gaining visibility across the social and cultural landscape, prompting a societal debate over the definition of gender identity.
For many conservatives, the identification of gender is purely biological and set at birth. However, for many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, gender identity is more fluid and highly personal. That tension has come to head this week in North Carolina, where the state is locked in a legal battle with the federal government over its co-called bathroom bill.
On Monday, the Justice Department sued North Carolina over its bathroom law, HB2, or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, saying that the legislation is discriminatory. HB2 includes measures that prohibit public school students from using school facilities consistent with their chosen gender identity. The lawsuit advised the state to confirm it would not be moving ahead with the legislation.
"This action is about a great deal more than bathrooms, this is about the dignity and respect that we accord our fellow citizens,” Attorney General Lynch said when announcing the federal lawsuit.
North Carolina responded with a countersuit, saying that the state was given an unrealistic amount of time to comply with the federally-imposed compliance deadline.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.