Yesterday, the Madison Metropolitan School District received a demand letter from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
The letter, which is usually the step taken before an entity files a lawsuit, relates to the District’s guidance document about how staff can support transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive students.
Sherie Hohs is a social worker and has been the school district’s LGBTQ lead for six years.
She says the document was developed after students and families sought resources about how to support gender nonconforming youth.
“We really took a lot of time to hear people, to hear people’s experiences, and to really center this guidance to support our students and make sure we’re implementing best practices in Madison schools,” Hohs says.
One of the District’s practices is to have staff refer to students by their affirmed names and pronouns.
Unless staff have a student’s permission to do otherwise, they must also maintain a student’s privacy by using their legal name and pronouns when corresponding with parents.
Students may also change their name or gender in district systems, but must have permission of at least one parent or legal guardian to do so.
Luke Berg is a deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
He says the District’s practices violate parents’ constitutional rights because a student’s gender transition is a medical issue.
“Teachers should be allowed to notify parents about that, because gender dysphoria can be a serious issue that requires help from medical professionals,” Berg says.
Berg also says this issue is becoming more prevalent.
“If you just read the news you can see that this is an issue that is increasing,” Berg says. “There are a lot more children now dealing with this issue than there were ten years ago. So, parents naturally, I think, want to know if their children begin to deal with this issue and the problem with the policy is it may prevent parents from even finding out.”
Finn Enke is a professor of history, gender and women’s studies, and LGBTQ+ studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
They say being gender nonconforming doesn’t necessarily entail an experience of gender dysphoria.
“Gender dysphoria is something that some trans and non-binary and gender-nonconforming people and genderqueer people experience, but not necessarily all [experience it], and it feels like an unecessary, medicalizing way of thinking about [these identities],” Enke says.
In 2016, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 1.4 million adults in the U.S. identify as transgender, nearly double an estimate from a decade before.
But, Enke says that statistic requires nuance.
“In terms of the historical trajectory, I think there’s literally no way to say objectively whether people take up a gender identity in greater or smaller numbers than in the past,” Enke notes. “In some sense [that’s] because there is that factor of the extreme amount of stigma and marginalization and violence that trans and gender nonconforming people experience, and so some people have had no choice about being more out and open about that [in the past].”
According to Berg, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty is representing 15 parents from 9 different families who are concerned about these practices.
None of those parents have a student who is gender nonconforming.
“But, parents have no way to know in advance whether their kids are going to deal with this issue,” Berg argues. “So, parents feel the need to challenge the policy now, so that if their kids ever do deal with this issue, their school district won’t cut them out of the conversation, but include them.”
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the school board did not vote on policies related to gender identity, but Tim LeMonds, a spokesperson for the district, said the guidance document that is based on practice, not policy, and that the school board does not vote on practice.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s demand letter asks the District to replace its policy “allowing students to change gender identity without parental notice or consent” with a new policy requiring parental notice and consent before a student may change gender identity at school.
The District has until the end of next month to implement these changes or face a potential lawsuit.