Activists and protesters with the National Center for Transgender Equality rally in front of the White House, Feb. 22, 2017.
Activists and protesters with the National Center for Transgender Equality rally in front of the White House, Feb. 22, 2017.

The U.S. federal government has rescinded guidelines allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities, rather than the gender listed for them at birth.

The Department of Justice and Department of Education issued a joint letter Wednesday to the nation's schools saying a directive issued last year by President Barack Obama's administration has led to "significant litigation" on the issue.

Those guidelines were based on law known as Title IX, arguing that its prohibitions against sex discrimination in education extend to gender identity.

In reversing course, the letter Wednesday said it must be up to states and local education departments to make that type of decision, and not the federal government.

"Congress, state legislatures and local governments are in a position to adopt appropriate policies or laws addressing this issue," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Both he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said protections against "discrimination, bullying and harassment" remain important.  And the letter says that schools must ensure that LGBT students can "learn and thrive in a safe environment."

In response to a lawsuit from a group of states, a federal judge had already put on hold the Obama-era directive.  Beyond objecting to the guidelines as a federal overreach, opponents also said they violated the safety and rights of other students.

Transgender rights advocates have continued to fight, and cite the importance of the guidelines even if they are not currently in effect.

Activists and protesters with the National Center
Activists and protesters with the National Center for Transgender Equality rally in front of the White House, Feb. 22, 2017 after President Trump announced he would revoke guidelines for protecting transgender students.

"Transgender students thrive when treated equally, but too often they are not," said Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality.  "With a pen stroke, the Trump administration effectively sanctions the bullying, ostracizing and isolation of these children, putting their very lives in danger."

The issue will go before the U.S. Supreme Court next month with the case of a teenager whose school district in the state of Virginia adopted a policy that prohibited him from using the men's restroom.  The American Civil Liberties Union brought the case on behalf of Gavin Grimm.  

James Esseks, the ACLU's LGBT project director, said Wednesday's move shows that promises from President Donald Trump to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights were "empty rhetoric."

"But the bottom line is that this does not undo legal protections for trans students, and school districts can and must continue to protect them and all students from discrimination.  School districts that recognize that should continue doing the right thing; for the rest, we'll see them in court," Esseks said.

A month after the Obama administration issued its guidelines last year, Trump wrote on Twitter he would be a better protector of LGBT rights than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Last year's directive came amid a battle in the state of North Carolina, which enacted a state law saying people have to use public bathrooms that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificate.

The law drew protests and led to a number of high-profile boycotts, including the National Basketball Association moving this month's all-star game out of the city of Charlotte, and both the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its Atlantic Coast Conference moving championship events out of the state.

Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Values Coalition told an Associated Press reporter in Raleigh, North Carolina, that she supports the Trump administration's action, and that Title IX protections should not be read to include to gender identity.

"I agree with President Trump," she said. "This is a state issue. And the federal government was engaged in gross overreach when it issued this directive that impacted every public school in the country." 

But Ames Simmons of Equality NC disagreed.

"We believe this is a terrible message that the Trump administration is sending to some of the most vulnerable young people in our country today," he said, also speaking to a reporter in Raleigh. "That the president and the administration are not going to protect them from discrimination, no matter what Title IX says."