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Commentary: America, move forward on transgender rights

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By Mel Robbins

Editor’s note: Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, best-selling author and keynote speaker. In 2014, she was named outstanding news talk-radio host by the Gracie Awards. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) — This past June, our family received a letter from the local public elementary school where our son was a fourth grader. The letter was addressed to the entire school community and it was about an elementary student who was transitioning over the summer and returning to school in the fall — as a boy.

I had watched, along with the entire world, Caitlyn Jenner’s stunning transition earlier this year, when the former Olympic gold medalist changed her name and gender. But this was the first time the issue was happening in my small community. The grace and authority with which the school handled it blew me away.

I have removed the name of the school from the letter. Here is an excerpt:

“This child’s gender identity (his sense of himself as a boy) is different from his assigned sex at birth, which was female. This student is in the process of completing a social transition from a girl to a boy. Social transition means that he now lives as a boy and is being referred to by his preferred name and with male pronouns. He now lives as a boy at home and in all aspects of his life in our community. He will return to 4th grade … in the fall as a boy. We fully support this student in his transition.

“This has been, and will continue to be, a learning experience for our school. As we have always done…, we will continue to be kind and respectful to everyone, and to support, accept and appreciate this student and his family as valued members of our community. Openness and respect for differences is in keeping with our core values.”

The letter went on to educate the community on ways we could best speak to our children about the subject of this student and the subject of transgender transitions. The school reminded us that gender identity has nothing to do with the body parts we were born with, rather it refers to someone’s internalized and deeply personal sense of being male, female, both or neither.

The letter was caring, thoughtful, inclusive and educational. The school provided concrete examples to help us further understand the topic — so we could explain it clearly to ourselves and to our children:

• “He is a boy. That’s what he feels deep inside of himself.”

• “There are different ways boys and girls express themselves. He feels most comfortable as a boy.”

• “It’s understandable that this might be confusing, and having questions is okay.”

• “It’s okay to be confused or to have questions, it’s not okay to tease or gossip about any student.”

• “He is a boy, so he’s using the boy’s restroom.”

• “There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with him. This is who he is, and we accept him as he is, just like we do for you.”

I have never been prouder to be a member of this community.

I sent the school a note saying so and I received an email back from the parents of the student who was transitioning (the school had forwarded my note to them). It was a beautiful and brave email. The mom shared the details of their struggle as parents and the long journey of coming to terms with the fact that her child was transgender. She has been floored by the support they have received from our small community.

When you allow yourself to step into someone else’s shoes, the way you view the world usually changes. With empathy comes understanding. And with understanding comes the most powerful place from which to solve problems — together. I really didn’t understand the issues of transgender people until I attempted to step into someone else’s shoes and empathized with their journey. And I didn’t know how to properly talk about the subject until someone educated me.

Which brings me to the schools in Illinois, Wisconsin, and across our nation that are actively discriminating against transgender students by denying them access to the bathrooms and locker rooms where they feel most comfortable. This week, voters in Houston rejected a gay and transgender anti-discrimination ordinance after a fervid scare campaign that used the slogan “No men in women’s bathrooms.”

It’s heartbreaking, really. It reminds me of an ugly moment in American history: the “stand in the schoolhouse door.” On June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the door at the University of Alabama blocking black students from enrolling. He was protesting desegregation and Brown v. Board of Education. President Kennedy had to step in, federalizing the Alabama National Guard and compelling Wallace to move out of the way.

Thankfully, the federal government is stepping in yet again, and laying down the law. On Monday, the Department of Education gave a Chicago-area school district 30 days to reach a solution on allowing a transgender student full access to the girls locker room or it will face enforcement, which could mean the loss of Title IX funding.

In so doing, the federal government is hoping to prevent state employees from “blocking the (bathroom and locker room) doors.”

With each legal victory and every school that handles the issue with compassion and courage, our country takes a step forward. Some day this won’t be an issue for transgender students. And that day couldn’t come too soon.

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