Equity & Diversity

N.C. Legislature Passes Restrictions on Transgender Student Restroom Access

By Evie Blad — March 23, 2016 3 min read
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The North Carolina legislature passed a bill Wednesday that requires public school boards in the state to restrict which restrooms and locker rooms transgender students can use at school.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed the measure later that night, making North Carolina the first state to restrict transgender students’ access to single-sex facilities that match their gender identity, potentially putting its schools at odds with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights. South Dakota lawmakers passed similar restrictions earlier this year, but Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed their bill saying it interfered with local control and does not address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota.

The North Carolina bill also prohibits local anti-discrimination ordinances based on gender identity and sexual orientation, similar to one set to go into effect soon in Charlotte. Lawmakers acted quickly, introducing the bill and passing it through both chambers in a whirlwind one-day special session in hopes of stopping that local measure. The bill passed the state’s Senate 32-0 after Democrats walked out in protest Wednesday evening. Earlier in the day, it passed the House 82-26.

McCrory issued a statement after he signed the bill which largely focused on the Charlotte ordinance.

“This new government regulation defies common sense and basic community norms by allowing, for example, a man to use a woman’s bathroom, shower or locker room,” the statement said.

“Although other items included in this bill should have waited until regular session, this bill does not change existing rights under state or federal law,” it later added, without specifying which of the bill’s provisions were less urgent.

While provisions related to local anti-discrimination ordinances got the most attention, parents, transgender students, and community leaders spoke about limits on school facilities use during committee meetings on the bill. That provision reads:

Local boards of education shall require every multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility that is designated for student use to be designated for and used only by students based on their biological sex [defined elswhere in the text as “the physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person’s birth certificate.”] Nothing in this section shall prohibit local boards of education from providing accommodations such as single occupancy bathroom or changing facilities or controlled use of faculty facilities upon a request due to special circumstances, but in no event shall that accommodation result in the local boards of education allowing a student to use a multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility designated under subsection (b) of this section for a sex other than the student’s biological sex.

Advocates for transgender students have argued that such accommodations are also stigmatizing and that, under current federal civil rights laws, they should be allowed to use multiple-occupancy restrooms that match their gender identity.

Sky Thomson, a 15-year-old transgender boy, told state lawmakers he felt bullied by their discussions.

“Imagine yourself in my place: Being a boy, walking into the ladies room,” he said. “It’s awkward, embarrassing, and even dangerous.”

Still others argued that limiting restroom access is an important measure to protect North Carolinians’ right to privacy. Without clear rules on access, “someone with bad intent could be somewhere where they don’t belong,” said Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

As I’ve written previously, accommodations for transgender students can be a complicated issue for some school districts. The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has said schools are obligated, under Title IX, to honor transgender students’ gender identity. That interpretation, which is not legally binding, is currently the subject of a lawsuit over transgender student restroom access that is before a federal court of appeals in Virginia.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.