Tech v Trump – tensions rise over which bathroom to use


President Trump has chosen to rescind guidance on transgender students rights to use certain bathrooms. It’s a decision that is going to do nothing to improve the already tense relationship with the tech industry.

It’s a fight that just didn’t need to be picked, but US President Donald Trump has escalated tension with the tech industry after over-turning Obama administration guidance on protections for transgendered individuals.

The Justice Department and the Education Department last week rescinded guidance for schools that transgender students should be allowed to use bathrooms and other facilities that correspond with their gender identity.

The decision to revoke the guidance immediately reignited old tensions between the tech industry and legislators, but this time those legislators are in the White House, not at state-level.

Last year saw a major battle over a controversial North Carolina bill restricting transgender students’ ability to use the bathroom of their choosing. In response to the North Carolina law, companies such as Deutsche Bank and PayPal canceled expansion plans, costing jobs and an estimated $560 million for the state.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was among the most vocal critics during the North Carolina row. Salesforce issued a formal statement:

Every child deserves an opportunity to succeed free of fear, anxiety, and threats of discrimination. Salesforce strongly believes that all students, including transgender students, should be treated as equals, and we disagree with any effort to limit their rights. Equality for all.

Meanwhile Benioff himself posted on Twitter:

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also voiced his protest online:

Elsewhere, Microsoft’s chief legal officer Brad Smith looked for historical precedent by alluding to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which freed America’s slave population:

Other tech firms stepped up with strong statements. Apple said:

Apple believes everyone deserves a chance to thrive in an environment free from stigma and discrimination. We support efforts toward greater acceptance, not less, and we strongly believe that transgender students should be treated as equals. We disagree with any effort to limit or rescind their rights and protections.

A Facebook statement read:

Facebook 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.

Meanwhile Alphabet/Google warned:

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.

That’s all good, but in North Carolina, the main battle tactic was the threat of commercial damage due to withdrawal from the state. That hit home, as it did in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana when he signed off on anti-LGBTQ legalisation.

But realistically that’s pretty much impossible to replicate across the entire US, even if all tech leaders joined in – and there’s a few firms that have yet to make their voices heard.

That said, according to a report on Axios, tech firms are going to put their support a case due to the held in the Supreme Court next month. Apple, Box, Ebay, GitHub, IBM, Microsoft, PayPal, Salesforce, Slack, Tumblr, and Yelp are all believed to be signing an Amicus Brief supporting Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm challenge to his school board over his right to use the bathroom that matches his gender identity. That’s a case whose outcome could well become a defining moment in the US’s legislation around and protection afforded to the transgender community.

My take

Watching from outside the US, what strikes me the most is the utter pettiness of this decision – the need to strip a group in society of guidance about civil rights protection in the name of what? There’s really nothing else that needed to be prioritized by the new administration in its first month?

For the tech industry, while the moral and ethical positions appear in the main to be clear cut,  this is going to result in a difficult dilemma from a commercial perspective. When the North Carolina battle broke out, there was a sympathetic administration in the White House that was itself opposed to the new law. That’s not the case this time.

The tech sector needs to find a way to work with the new administration for the next four years and on the basis of the first month in office, that’s going to test a lot of people’s patience.

The tensions between the Trump White House and the tech industry are tangible, even if they haven’t (yet) broken out into the naked vendetta being pursued against sections of the media.

If tech leader backing for the Grimm Supreme Court challenge results in a precedent-setting resolution that challenges the Trump revocation of transgender protection guidance, an early morning Twitter meltdown from the West Wing might be the least of the worries for those firms. The negative share price impact of Trump criticism has been felt by a number of firms already.

Here at diginomica, we entirely support and commend those tech firms who’ve taken a leadership position on this issue, as we did before during the Indiana and North Carolina incidents, and we look forward to more statements of condemnation from others in the industry whose voices may be heard more clearly in the Oval Office.

For the record, our diversity policy is best understood by reading this:

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Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.