Right-of-center opposition politicians chided the center-left Socialist government for the rules on Thursday, with some disproving lawmakers asking the Constitutional Court to intervene. An online petition against the directive surpassed 23,000 signatures in two days, newspaper opinion pages weighed the advantages and disadvantages, and social media provided a platform for outraged parents worried that boys might enter girls' bathrooms.
A schools' directive, issued last week, says children can make choices that correspond with their gender identity, including choosing a bathroom, wearing a girl's or boy's school uniform or using their new gender name.
They can only officially change their gender at 16.
The directive sets out administrative procedures stemming from a law passed by parliament last year that seeks to guard against the discrimination of transgender people.
The dispute echoes a heated debate in the United States, where the Obama administration sided with transgender students in their choice of school bathrooms. The Trump administration scrapped that policy and left the decision to schools and states.
Lawmakers with Portugal's center-right Social Democratic Party questioned the wisdom of the directive. It could worsen school bullying and amounted to "an ideological imposition by the radical left," they said in a letter to the government, cited by the newspaper Expresso.
The government pointed out that the directive requires each school's teachers and parents to work out the best way to implement the anti-discrimination policy.
The secretary of state for education, Joao Costa, noted that students cannot spontaneously declare a change of gender - their parents must give their blessing and the student must be undergoing a gender transition.
The aim of the directive, Costa said, is to protect transgender children, though there are no official statistics on how many of them there are in the country of 10 million people.
The directive "is not a bathroom directive, it's a child protection directive," he told Portugal's TSF radio.
The National Association of School Directors recommended the directive be adopted gradually, though it is due to come into force next month with the start of the new school year.
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