Which locker room for transgender students?


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, Oct. 22:

Across America, public schools are faced with a challenge almost unheard of a generation ago: dealing with a student population that isn’t sorted neatly into boys and girls.

A small but growing number of students and their families are demanding that schools make accommodations for transgender youths, who were born with the body parts of one gender but identify with the other.

Which bathrooms should they use? Should they play for the boys sports teams or the girls? Where should they change clothes and shower after gym class or athletic events?

Palatine-based Township High School District 211 in Illinois is prepared to lock horns with the federal government over those questions, which the district believes should be handled at the local level. The U.S. Department of Education has said District 211 is violating the Title IX gender equality law by not allowing a transgender student who identifies as a girl to use the girls locker room.

The student, who has lived as a girl for several years, plays on a girls sports team but has been using a private dressing area near the gym.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint on her behalf, alleging discrimination. The ACLU’sJohn Knight says his client should be treated “like any other girl,” and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights agrees.

By fighting that ruling, District 211 risks losing federal funding — last year, it amounted to about $6 million — and running up a big legal bill. But Superintendent Daniel Cates says the district has decided to challenge the ruling because Education Department has overstepped its authority.

School districts locally have varying policies to address the needs of transgender kids. Some provide gender-neutral bathrooms; others let students use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Some provide private restrooms and changing rooms for transgender students; others allow students to decide where to change clothes.

Cates said there are transgender students in all five of District 211’s high schools. “We recognize the gender identity of these young people” and “readily and fully support” them, he said.

The district honors students’ requests to change their name and gender as listed in school records. They’re allowed to choose which restroom to use because there are private stalls. They can play on sports teams for the gender with which they identify, in accordance with Illinois High School Association rules.

But the district drew the line at the locker rooms, where large open dressing areas are shared by 100 or more youngsters. Those students should not have to worry about seeing or being seen by someone with body parts of the opposite sex, Cates said.

So the student in question has the choice of using either the boys locker room or a private dressing room near the gym. Knight says that policy tells his client, “You’re not really a girl.”

The parties aren’t as far apart as they may sound. District 211 is willing to provide private dressing stations within its locker rooms — not just one, but six to 10, Cates says. They could be used by any student who is uncomfortable changing clothes in front of anyone else for any reason.

Cates says many adolescents would welcome that level of privacy. Knight says he believes his client would use the stalls voluntarily.

Problem solved, right? No.

The sticking point is that while they’d be available to all students, they’d be mandatory for one. The district would require the transgender girl to use the stalls. That’s not acceptable to the Office of Civil Rights, which insists on the same rules and accommodations for all students.

It’s worth noting that this big legal showdown looms over something that, to the kids, is not such a big deal.

Neither the district nor the ACLU has named the student in the complaint, but her identity is no secret to her teammates and other students. “Her perception is that no one cares,” Knight says of his client.

Cates says the current crop of high school students are “unlike any generation I’ve seen” in their acceptance of others.

As a practical matter, they have less cause to be self-conscious in the locker room. While their parents may have been traumatized by mandatory group nudity, today’s students rarely undress fully or shower at school. That’s true in District 211, Cates says.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t students who might be uncomfortable, or that their sensibilities shouldn’t be respected. But the solution is already within reach.

There’s no reason privacy stalls can’t work without demanding that transgender students use them.

They should be standard in all school locker rooms. We suspect they’d be particularly welcomed by transgender students whose peers aren’t as supportive as those in District 211. But if transgender students elected not to use them, the other students’ privacy wouldn’t be compromised. They could use the dressing stalls themselves.

Respect, common sense and privacy curtains for everyone. It really could be that simple.

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(c)2015 Chicago Tribune

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