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Puerto Rico makes progress in respecting the gender expression of its public school students

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October 16, 2015
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Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Staff Attorney

To be comfortable and thrive in school, students should be able to be themselves, unconstrained by stereotypes about gender. As the new school year began, Puerto Rico’s government took yet another step to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and gender-nonconforming students within its public schools.Last month, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, Rafael Román Meléndez, issued an official letter setting forth new rules about uniforms in Puerto Rico’s public school system. (Unlike the vast majority of public school students in the U.S., students in Puerto Rico public schools generally wear uniforms.)  Under the new rules, public school students in Puerto Rico may wear school uniforms, including pants or skirts, without limitations based on gender stereotypes.

Specifically, the letter states that, “The use of a particular piece of clothing will not be imposed on students that do not feel comfortable with such clothing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Department of Education has the primary function of looking after the learning process and it does not participate in the emotional mistreatment that this [imposition] could cause.”  

For years, Lambda Legal has advocated for schools to treat LGBT and gender-nonconforming students with dignity and respect. We have helped students thrive in schools by targeting bullying and discriminatory practices across the country and by developing resources to help LGBT young people know their rights. You can learn more about Lambda Legal’s work with students and in schools here. Consult Lambda Legal’s bilingual resource, Know Your Rights: Teen & Young Adults, which answers frequently asked questions such as: What can you do if you’re bullied? and What are your speech rights at school?

Simply put, schools must respect their students’ gender identity and protect LGBT and gender-nonconforming students from discrimination and harassment. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000c et seq., prohibit discrimination in public schools against students on the basis of sex, which includes their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Moreover, students have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which includes the ability to dress according to their gender identity. For example, in Logan v. Gary Community School Corporation, Lambda Legal successfully argued that a school violated K.K. Logan’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, symbolic action and expressive conduct when she wasn’t allowed to wear a dress to her prom. As a result, K.K. received an undisclosed amount and the school district's dress code and nondiscrimination policies were revised to contain specific protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

The recent developments in Puerto Rico follow a number of other positive steps taken by the Puerto Rico government over the past year to recognize the diversity of its student body and respect the rights of all its LGBT and gender-nonconforming students. On May 26, 2015, Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro J. García Padilla signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination, bullying, and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in public schools and ordering the Department of Education to treat its LGBT students with dignity and respect. On February 25, 2015, the Secretary of Education issued an official letter ordering public policy of gender equity and requiring its incorporation into the public school curriculum, including the rethinking of the social and cultural constructs regarding gender roles.

It is important for schools to be aware that policies that discriminate on the basis of gender identity harm the health and wellbeing of the students. For example, subjecting transgender students to discriminatory treatment and denying them access to single-sex facilities that match their gender identity deprives students of opportunities to socialize with their peers, and sends a clear message there is something wrong with them or inferior about them. Such stigmatizing treatment can lead to lower self-esteem and isolation from one’s peers, as well as negative educational outcomes and physical health problems.

The actions by the Puerto Rico government with regard to the rights of LGBT and gender-nonconforming students are a positive step toward a more inclusive and equal society. Lambda Legal commends the Puerto Rico Department of Education for taking that step and urges public school administrators in Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States to treat LGBT and gender-nonconforming students with the dignity and respect they deserve and are entitled to under law.

Contact Lambda Legal if your school does not respond in a helpful way at: 866-542-8336 or use our online email form at www.lambdalegal.com/help.