LGBTQ+ advocates, group behind lawsuit respond to judge partially halting MMSD gender identity guidelines

MADISON, Wis. – While the conservative group behind a lawsuit challenging the Madison Metropolitan School District’s guidelines on gender identity says a recent injunction doesn’t go far enough, transgender advocates worry it’s a step in the wrong direction.

The lawsuit filed in February claims the school district’s transgender policy is violating parents’ constitutional rights by not telling them if their child wants to be called a different name or transition at school.

Originally, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty represented 14 parents. That’s now six as Deputy Counsel Luke Berg said other parents had their children leave the district.

A Dane County Judge recently issued an order preventing MMSD from enforcing any practice in its gender identity guidelines “in any manner that allows or requires District staff to conceal information or to answer untruthfully in response to any question that parents ask about their child at school, including information about the name and pronouns being used to address their child at school.”

In a statement, MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds clarified that this is guidance, not policy, writing that, “The District has not and does not construe or interpret the Guidance to support or encourage MMSD officials to misrepresent or conceal anything from parents, and the Court did not otherwise require MMSD to change its existing approach.”

The statement went on to say that working with families is the preferred method of support and that MMSD will continue to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of every individual student to the best of our ability.”

Berg said that the law firm doesn’t think the injunction went far enough, and they still want a ruling that would require school staff to notify parents if their children are making gender identity changes.

“There’s a debate and big controversial fight about whether this is appropriate and whether transitioning is helpful or harmful,” Berg said. “Parents want to be involved to help kids navigate the process, to give them advice, provide them support –mental health support.”

According to Berg, none of the parents involved in the lawsuit have had a child make such changes.

“None have yet, but they don’t know in advance if or when their children will,” he said. “Given the district has a policy of hiding from them, they can’t wait until that situation comes up because they won’t know that it’s happening.”

Brian Juchems is co-director of GSAFE, which helps Wisconsin schools support LGBTQ students. He said policies that keep school staff from disclosing gender identity, even to parents, aren’t meant to deceive.

“The Madison school district isn’t hiding or trying to prevent families to be involved in the conversation,” Juchems said. “What the guidance does is give districts tools to help students be agents in their own coming out stories.”

Juchems said he was disappointed by news of the injunction, which he thinks can work to undermine the guidelines. Still, he doesn’t believe the lawsuit will result in a judge entirely dismissing MMSD’s guidance — practices which he said keep students safe.

“Being transgender is not an emergency. Being transgender is not a health crisis in and of itself. I think where it becomes challenging for trans students is when they are in unsafe, unsupportive environments, whether at home or school,” he said. “I think we’re risking the health and wellbeing, the safety and lives of transgender students by forcing them to come out before they’re ready.”

Ginger Baier, a transgender health advocate at Outreach LGBTQ+ Community Center, said her path would’ve been a bit easier had guidelines like those at MMSD been around.

“I think it’s very important for these students to feel safe as they explore their journey,” Baier said. “People say kids are too young to figure out gender identity. Personally, I knew my gender identity around age five. I was born in 1950. There was no transgender resources or anything for me as a child. I would’ve loved it if my school had been supportive to me.”

Juchems stressed GSAFE and school officials are still committed to supporting transgender and non-binary students.

“I know this can be very scary and feels like an attack on your person, so I just want to remind students that you still have a right to be safe at school and you still have a right to be safe from discrimination, so this ruling doesn’t change that,” he said.

The judge has yet to make a final ruling on the lawsuit.