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Priest educates governor in anti-discrimination law in Arkansas

Priest educates governor in anti-discrimination law in Arkansas

Today, May 17, is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, & Biphobia; in the US, the rights and wrongs of bathroom access are still in the spotlight as the fallout from North Carolina’s HB2 continues to spread across the country.

On Friday, the White House issued guidelines to schools across the country, advising them on what non-discrimination means. From NPR:

Under federal law, Title IX, schools that receive federal funding are not allowed to discriminate against students on the basis of sex. The guidance sent out to school districts on Friday makes it clear that as far as the departments of Justice and Education are concerned, that word “sex” includes gender identity. …


The main question seems to be about bathrooms or locker rooms. Here the administration’s guidance is very clear: A school must allow transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. A school cannot require transgender students to use individual restrooms or locker rooms when other students are not required to do so. Schools can, however, offer individual restrooms to all students.

Arkansas’ Governor Asa Hutchinson was offended by the administration’s advice. In a statement quoted by the Arkansas Times, he wrote:

“The recent letter from the federal government providing guidance to Arkansas schools on gender identification is offensive, intrusive and totally lacking in common sense. There is no recognizable problem in Arkansas on this issue. The federal government is stirring the pot and meddling in the local control and administration of our schools.

“As Governor, I recommend that local school districts disregard the latest attempt at social engineering by the federal government and continue to use common sense to ensure a safe and healthy environment in Arkansas schools. While the letter implies federal money could be withheld, the letter is nothing more than guidance and is not legally binding.”

Yesterday, the Arkansas Times published in full the response of an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Gwen Fry, president of the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition, commenting that “others would do well to read [the letter] for some background on the shortcomings in [Governor Hutchinson’s] blast of President Obama for reminding states of the need not to discriminate against transgender students.”

Fry’s letter to the governor reads:

Dear Governor Hutchinson,

I am writing you to express my disappointment in your response to the letter sent by the federal government as guidance to the school districts of this nation regarding the fair and equal treatment under the law of transgender students. You stated that you found the letter “offensive, intrusive and totally lacking in common sense.” The guidelines the federal government made explicit to the school districts in the state of Arkansas and throughout the country may be different than what you are speaking out against and opposing.

When the state of Arkansas took federal money tied to Title IX the state signed a contract with the federal government that explicitly agreed to not discriminate on the basis of gender identity.

The Republican majority in the United States congress in 2013 actually defined “gender identity” and set the standards for nondiscrimination that is now part of the contractual agreement the state entered into when receiving funds for programs tied to Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act. (1)

I am concerned that you do not fully understand the peril you are putting transgender students in when you come out in opposition to this letter. Ensuring a safe and healthy environment in Arkansas schools requires that you are aware that data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey show a direct correlation between the high suicide rates of teenagers and bathroom restriction of transgender teens. (2)

Please look at whose lives you are putting in jeopardy when you refuse to acknowledge the students in Arkansas schools whose safety is in danger daily.

Perhaps you do not have experience or previous relationship with a member of the transgender community. Let me for a moment be their voice. I am the president of Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition (ArTEC). There has been a lot of misinformation about our community. I would appreciate an opportunity for a direct, non-confrontational conversation. I invite you into this conversation as soon as possible so that together we can build a stronger, safer Arkansas for all Arkansans.


The Reverend Gwen Fry
President of ArTEC

1) “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity (as defined in paragraph 249(c)(4) of title 18, United States Code), sexual orientation, or disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity funded in whole or in part with funds made available under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (title IV of Public Law 103–322 ; 108 Stat. 1902), the Violence Against Women Act of 2000 (division B of Public Law 106–386; 114 Stat. 1491), the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005 (title IX of Public Law 109–162 ; 119 Stat. 3080), the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 , and any other program or activity funded in whole or in part with funds appropriated for grants, cooperative agreements, and other assistance administered by the Office on Violence Against Women.”

2) National Center for Transgender Equality 

See also: Fort Worth Bishop among the voices in school bathroom debate

Featured image: the Rev. Gwen Fry, via


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Anne Bay

What a great letter! It has everything. I like the sentence “perhaps you do not have experience, etc.” At some point facts and reality have to take over the fear-based bigoted ignorance of the far right on LGBT status. Thank goodness there is a law against discrimination. My dad said once isn’t it too bad that there has to be a law for things that are about just doing the right thing! We need more education on all things regarding LGBT. I think as the younger people age, a lot of the discriminatory practices will fall by the wayside. We’ll look back and say what was the problem? Until then we need to work harder to keep the younger people in LGBT healthy and alive.

Eric Bonetti

Good job, Gwen!

Susannah Clark

Gwen’s intervention is reasonable and positive. President Obama has made clear the policy and requirements at national level for schools. It’s not rocket science. People go into cubicles to pee. Every single human being needs to do that. It’s sad that the straightforward biological function gets ‘sexualised’.

What about Anglican Church premises in various provinces? Is there similar clear direction and requirement when it comes to use of toilets/washrooms on church property?

Are churches clear that it would be discriminatory to refuse entry to toilets/washrooms to anyone, just because they are transgender? Is there clear instruction on this – because there should be no discretionary right to discriminate.

David Allen

I agree with your sentiment, however, perhaps you are unaware that churches in the USA may discriminate pretty much against anyone they please.

Wayne Helmly

Great job, Mother Fry.

Here is the definition of “gender identity” that is referenced in the foot note of the letter, (paragraph 249[c][4] of Title 18, of the United States Code):

“(4) the term ‘gender identity’ means actual or perceived gender-related characteristics….”

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