With tears in their eyes, Vanessa and JR Ford recounted to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos the story of their transgender daughter Ellie, sharing the drawings in which Ellie depicted herself as a stick figure in a little dress and telling her about Ellie’s fourth birthday, where she declared “I am a girl in my brain and my heart.”
In the Department of Education conference room, Ellie sat nearby sketching characters from Sonic the Hedgehog and munching on apple sauce. She had just met the secretary, the Fords later recalled, giving DeVos her classic fake-out handshake in which she ran her tiny fingers up the woman’s arm, squealing “Squirrel!”
The Fords, who live in the District and send Ellie to a charter school, joined other families with transgender children at a Wednesday meeting hoping to persuade DeVos to do more to protect transgender students, whom they say have been imperiled by the Trump administration’s move to roll back Obama-era protections two weeks ago.
“It was very painful to have to do. Both my husband and I fought through tears trying to tell her how difficult the past two weeks have been,” Vanessa Ford told The Washington Post. “These are our families. These are our friends. And we are angry.”
The emotional meeting came after the Fords and others sent a letter to the Trump administration in late February, asking its officials to sit down to discuss transgender students’ rights. It took place immediately before DeVos met with representatives of three LGBTQ groups — National Center for Transgender Equality; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; and Equality Michigan — who echoed the parents’ message and outlined policy recommendations.
“I joined my colleagues from NCTE and Equality Michigan and a delegation of families in meeting with Secretary DeVos to relay the concerns and fears of hundreds of thousands of students, educators, and parents who have been affected by the alarming actions of the Trump administration,” Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, said in a statement. “We highlighted the pervasive violence and discrimination that the majority of transgender students face across the country, including being prevented from using their correct name and pronouns and appropriate school facilities.”
DeVos said in a statement that she is committed to ensuring a safe learning environment for all children.
“I am grateful to have had the time to speak directly with the families, students and community leaders about their concerns, thoughts, fears and suggestions. Every school and every school leader has a moral responsibility to protect all students and ensure every child is respected and can learn in an accepting environment,” DeVos said. “I remain committed to advocating for and fighting on behalf of all students. Today’s meeting was compelling, moving and welcomed, and part of an ongoing dialogue with families and students throughout the country.”
On Feb. 22, DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions pulled back Obama-era guidance that directed public schools to call transgender students by their chosen name and gender and to allow them to use the bathrooms of the gender they identify with, regardless of what is on their birth certificates. The two Cabinet members said the issue was a matter best left to states. But according to a GOP operative with knowledge of conversations on the issue, DeVos voiced private objections to rescinding the directive.
Grace Dolan-Sandrino, 16, a transgender girl who attends Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District, was among those who met DeVos on Wednesday. She had been in that same conference room two years earlier, sharing her experiences as a transgender student with Arne Duncan, then the education secretary, as his department worked to craft the very directive that DeVos undid.
The teenager said she told DeVos that what she had done was “cruel.” And she left her with some strong final words.
“I told her in order to feel good about the meeting that I needed to leave her with a charge,” the teenager said. “She has the lives and the futures of thousands of students across the country in both public and public charter schools in her hands. It is up to her to provide protections for transgender students, and it is up to her to combat the ignorant, harmful, bigoted actions of the Trump administration.”
The Supreme Court, which was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case of a transgender Virginia teen seeking to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school, remanded the case this week to a lower court as a result of the change in guidance. It delivered another blow to the fight for transgender student rights and worried advocates, who fear that more schools and school districts will seek to restrict where transgender students use the bathroom. Attorneys for the teen, Gavin Grimm, on Wednesday asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to expedite the case so that it could be resolved before the high school senior graduates on June 10.
The rollback means states, schools and, in some cases, individual principals decide where transgender students use the bathroom, which advocates say will further imperil a group of students already at an increased risk of being bullied at school and suicide.
Katharine Prescott of Vista, Calif., joined the families, talking about her transgender son Kyler, who committed suicide two years ago at the age of 14 after struggling with depression. Prescott said she wanted to underscore how vulnerable transgender children can be and how critical it is for the government to protect them.
Prescott shared with DeVos “just how much the guidance would have meant to” her son and just how much it meant to transgender children who face a world where they often feel like they are not accepted.
“They need our support more than anything,” Prescott said. “These are children, and they need to be able to go to school like anyone else.”
Looking around the room at other families and their transgender children, Prescott said she shed a few tears.
“I was wishing I could have been there with my son. That was the other emotion,” Prescott said. “These familes were coming in to stand up with their kids. I couldn’t do that because Kyler isn’t here anymore.”