School Climate & Safety Opinion

What Bathroom Will Your Transgender Students Use?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 26, 2017 5 min read
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It was in December of 1973 that the board of the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. By March 1982, Wisconsin led the way as the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The armed forces followed in December 1993 with the “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell” policy in the Department of Defense. But the momentum of acceptance and extension of rights did not extend to marriage. In December 1996 President Clinton signed DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), defining marriage between one man and one woman and that no state is required to recognized marriage from another state. The terrain was, however, open and in May 2004 Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same sex marriage as legal. October 2009 saw President Obama sign The Matthew Shepard Act into law. Sexual orientation, gender identity or disability are included within the motivation for identifying a crime as a hate crime. The armed forces took another step in December 2010 reversing “Don’ Ask. Don’t Tell” allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. In February 2011 President Obama says his administration will no longer defend DOMA (PBS). The past forty five years have been marked by the struggle and the conflicting beliefs around these issues.

Where Are We Now?
How did this affect the children growing up and discovering that they are gay? They were in our classrooms, watching, listening, fearful of being discriminated against because they found themselves attracted to their same gender. According to a 2015 GLSEN national survey, two strong findings emerged. One, LGBTQ students experience pervasive harassment and discrimination and two, school-based supports were found to make a difference.

In the mix of those letters, LGBTQ is the ‘T” now becomes the hot policy issue. And the focus is not in the armed serves or even about adults. It is about bathroom use by those children and adolescents who are discovering that their birth gender is not who they are. No matter their genitals, they identify with the other gender and often dress so. They want to be called by a new name, and are trying to figure out how to navigate their lives in school. Where they go to the bathroom in school remains an issue that concerns parents, legislators and educators. The policy position of President Obama’s administration has just been reversed by the new administration. Some are applauding the return of the debate to the states and the delaying of transgender identification until later in a child’ life. Others feel the major setback and wonder about the impact on children. With respect, we will assume that fear and ignorance is present...so is faith. Why does it matter where these children go to the bathroom? What, exactly, is the problem? Why does creating a separate bathroom for these children seem like a solution?

Our 20th century educational system was scarred by outward racial segregation until the courts ruled and laws were changed to open schools to all. But not all segregation was racial. It was in the still in the 1960’s that children determined to be ‘mentally disabled’ were removed from homes and basements and sent to ‘special schools’. Through a series of laws these children have now been brought into the mainstream, are included with their peers in classes and other school activities and are graduating. Social change progresses by educating all students, offering all students a safe place to learn, and offering all students opportunities for success. Now the issue presents itself again.

Students Safety
Students who identify as LGBT have the same rights as any student. If you think otherwise, it is worth reconsidering. We have long been a nation that both fears those who are different from us, and welcomes them. It is a tension held. But as educators, we are keenly aware that each of the students who enter the doors to learn and succeed deserve a safe environment. When thinking of school safety and social emotional health, every student deserves our attention. If we could engage this issue on solely those grounds, we might discover a solution. But, embedded in this issue are the questions of age and gender identification on which there is medical and psychological differences of opinion. There are also questions about accommodation and the desire to protect all children, our “T’s” and others. Then, there are questions of religious perspectives and it stirs up diversity that seems irreconcilable. So, we move it around like a hot potato from the federal level to state level but we now it will play out at our level....locally, school by school.

What would happen if we allowed all students to use the restroom that aligns with their gender, use their preferred name and gender in school, wear LGBT supportive apparel, have LGBT themes included in extracurricular activities (e.g. school yearbook, Day of Silence), discuss LGBT issues in assignments, wear clothing considered inappropriate for their gender?

We know that the children need stability and some children whose lives are in turmoil need it greatly. So, consider the state solution and its impact on children. Imagine the well-being of a transgender child, for example, who spends years in schools that allow the child to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identification. They then move to a state where laws permit them to be separated either by going to a ‘transgender’ bathroom or by forcing them to go to the bathroom that is aligned to their birth gender.

In Our Hands
We are not legislators but we are educators. The decision to offer each state the right to make a decision that was already made at the federal level is a cop-out. No matter the federal decision, let’s join as educators and advocate that rights assured remain. These are our children. Let’s make sure we learn as much as we can about them and make them as safe as we can. Let’s protect their right to be treated with dignity. Then let’s stand up and say and do what is right.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by pexels courtesy of Pixabay

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.