School & District Management Opinion

Schools as Instruments of Social Change: Transgender Students and Bathrooms

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 19, 2016 6 min read
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The transparency with which social and traditional media sheds light on the dark underbelly of the bias and bigotry still held by some allows us all to see just where we, as a society, stand. Liberties extended to all citizens have eventually always been guaranteed to the marginalized via the legal system.

The Right to Vote
Before 1870, black men were denied the right to vote. The 15th amendment changed that. Yet, national implementation lagged far behind the constitutional resolution. Segregated and biased voting laws and norms prevented full access to the rights guaranteed in the amendment until the voting rights act of 1965. Now, we continue to hear of the obstacles placed in the way of black voters. It was not until 1920 that the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote in this country. New social views have thankfully continued to open doors in our society to all of us but it is never a swift or essay process.

Which Bathroom?
Now the federal government has re-entered the arena of gender identity and public schools. The issue of transgender students and bathrooms has risen to a national policy level . The letter to schools from the Department of Justice begins:

Schools across the country strive to create and sustain inclusive, supportive, safe, and nondiscriminatory communities for all students. In recent years, we have received an increasing number of questions from parents, teachers, principals, and school superintendents about civil rights protections for transgender students. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) and its implementing regulations prohibit sex discrimination in educational programs and discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status. This letter summarizes a school’s Title IX obligations regarding transgender students and explains how the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) evaluate a school’s compliance with these obligations.

More of a stick and carrot move from the Department of Justice, it caused an expected uproar from some states and school districts. There remains no law that specifically says girls must use the girls’ rooms, boys must use the boys’ room or that one’s gender at birth is one’s gender for life unless and until you legally change your birth certificate to read with a new name and gender. This is all about the familiar and the way things have always been. It is about perception and beliefs. It is about the judgment and fear that arise when those beliefs are challenged. This is a major social issue and, as often happens, it is playing out in our schools. Do schools reflect society or are they the places where social change is lead and experienced first? When schools are used as instruments of social change, voices raise and struggles ensue.

Students of all races, abilities, socio-economic levels, gender identities, and gay or straight come to schools to be educated without being maligned or segregated. And now, more than ever, there is a demand for inclusivity as collaborative learning becomes more of a 21st century practice. Students, in order to be prepared for the world in which they will live as adults, will have to know how to be part of a team and know how to learn and work as a collaborative group. The makeup of the team may not be a choice. In schools, the same is so.

Educators come to this work knowing they are caretakers of all the children, the ones for whom they have daily responsibility and the ones who are part of the bigger system. They have worked to include, accept, and support all the children who come to be learners in their classrooms, schools, and districts. They have lead the conversations with parents and pastors and with legislators, reporters and police about this work of welcoming each child and all the children and of keeping them safe.

From those who have been vocal about their opposition to allowing transgender students use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, much of the objection seems not to be about the gender identity issue but rather that we are confronting imagined imposters who mean others harm. First, in what school, in this day and age, does anyone enter the building without checking in? Second, in what schools do adult visitors in the building, use the bathrooms assigned for children? If schools are not secure in general, that is a separate problem to be addressed. But this idea that someone would feign gender identity in order to molest children in the bathroom covers a deeper fear that feeds bias about things we do not understand or believe is simply wrong. But, there is still the issue of teachers and of other students who may be transgendered. We, as school leaders, need to be cautious that they are safe as well.

Although since 1970 the percentage of Americans who believed that gay people were more likely than heterosexuals to be child molesters has gone from 70% to lower than 20%, The new targeted population seems to be the transgender community. The evidence points to perception not reality. And perception seems to be fed by ignorance and fear.

Be Fearless
The best thing all schools and state leaders can do is to unpack their own true fears. Why should children who have identified as a particular gender be denied going to the bathroom that is assigned for their gender identity? Certainly gender-neutral bathrooms are an option.

This is truly a moment for the adults who make decisions about whether they are going to accept social change and create the environments in which all children can flourish to be courageous. As educators we can lead and help the community by knowing the facts and dispelling misconceptions. We need to create policy and practices that are grounded in research. We need to anticipate where this conversation will go next...from bathrooms to locker rooms to sports teams to prom dates. Fundamentally, we need to protect all the children.

There are those who argue that gender identity is tied to birth certificates and physical characteristics at birth alone. How is it better to deny a child access to a boys’ room if he dresses as a boy, looks like a boy, goes by a name of a boy, identifies as being a boy, but does not have the genitals of a boy? What will that mean to that youngster if we force him into the girls’ room? Is that better for the other girls? How is protecting children from an imagined imposter more important than granting that child acceptance for who they are within our learning community? This is no doubt a challenge for some among us, but this issue is at our door and lives inside our walls. Throughout our history, schools have served a role as instruments of social change. We were not always prepared to lead it and we haven’t always done it well. But, change comes in this case with the children and with the adults in the community. Leading a community through this process is incumbent upon the leaders. It is important for all students. Behaviors can be legislated and rights extended but social change takes root one person at a time. Frequently, those people stand alone and make the courageous choice.


The military was not well suited to be an instrument of social change. The struggle to accept gay’s in the military was included in a West Wing episode in the year 2000. The struggle is revealed in this scene, where Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, played by John Amos, effectively sums it all up. We think it is worth the time to watch.


An EdWeek article, Education Department’s Transgender Guidance: Congress, K-12 Leaders React, reveals some hopeful responses from school leaders.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.