Two weeks ago, US President Donald Trump rescinded a directive issued by former president Barack Obama last year asserting that schools throughout the country could not force transgender students to use restrooms designated for the gender they were assigned at birth without violating federal anti-discrimination laws. Obama’s order was already held up in court and faced an uncertain fate, but Trump’s reversal of the previous administration’s position has also proven controversial; although the policy in question concerns schools, not workplaces, many private companies, particularly Silicon Valley tech giants, issued statements opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw these protections for transgender children, though as Engadget’s Andrew Tarantola observed, these companies did not respond as forcefully to this event as they did last April when North Carolina passed its hotly debated “bathroom bill”:
When asked for comment, a Google spokesperson replied “We’ve long advocated for policies that provide equal rights and treatment for all. We’re deeply concerned to see a roll-back in transgender students’ rights.” Facebook, which gently chastised the Trump administration over its immigration ban, told us that it “is a strong supporter of equality. We stand for ensuring equal rights for everyone, including transgender students, and will continue to advocate for more rights instead of fewer.” …
These statements are noticeably less forceful than those following the passage of HB2 in North Carolina, a law that required people to use the restroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in government buildings. In the wake of that controversy, everyone from the NCAA to Bruce Springsteen, PayPal to Apple vowed to boycott the state. There is little indication that these companies, aside from GitHub, have plans to take proactive steps in response to this announcement.
Last week, meanwhile, 53 companies including tech giants like Amazon, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft signed an amicus brief in the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student who sued his local school board for the right to use the boy’s restroom after he was told he could not. The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would not hear the case after all, and sent it back to the lower court to reconsider in light of the new administration’s directives, but the companies’ brief is still notable for the arguments it makes, including that corporate America has an interest in ensuring that schools teach acceptance and inclusion to prepare students to work in increasingly diverse and inclusive workplaces:
Our schools and educators play an integral role in shaping children’s values as citizens and in creating norms. And how children learn to treat others in school impacts their views and behavior outside of school and, later, once they are in the work force. An educational system that passes and enforces discriminatory policies such as the Policy, teaches youth that transgender children are second-class citizens and should be treated as such. This dangerous lesson normalizes and enables bullying, prejudice, and harassment, which can translate into workplace and community intolerance in adulthood. … Amici have an interest in ensuring that the education provided to this country’s youth prepares them for inclusive workplaces like those of amici—environments in which all members of society can maintain an inherent sense of worth and dignity.
Also, while the policy in question doesn’t affect these companies’ workplaces, Jennifer Williams-Alvarez points out at Corporate Counsel that a broader rollback of protections for transgender people by the Trump administration might also open the way to policies making it easier for employers to discriminate against this vulnerable group, or could simply create an environment in which anti-transgender prejudices are perceived as more acceptable. To address these concerns, D&I leaders may want to revisit their anti-discrimination and harassment policies to make sure that transgender employees are adequately protected, along with communicating clearly to employees what is expected of them in terms of civility and inclusivity in the workplace.
In the meantime, the signatories to last week’s brief have taken a strong public stance on a highly controversial social issue. “In a season marked by open letters,” Fortune’s Ellen McGirt remarks, “the brief is a particularly bold move”:
“Companies will be judged by their words, deeds, and actions,” says Chris Allieri, founder of marketing and communications firm Mulberry & Astor. He’s also a board member for The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis services to LGBTQ youth. He’s seen first hand what allyship can mean. “Good corporate leaders are listening to their customers and their employees and being asked to do the right thing. This isn’t about some left-leaning CEOs tweeting on the coasts, but big marquee American brands standing up for what’s right.”