In public meetings, parents in District 211 were furious, arguing against the OCR’s mandate. Those parents’ opposition nearly scuttled the agreement between the OCR and the school district. As of this writing, the transgender girl will be changing in the girls’ locker room, in a private curtained area that will be available to any student who prefers privacy when she changes. This decision applies only to the student in the case, and is not a district-wide policy.
More such confrontations are likely to emerge in the next months and years. Transgender students have been coming out at younger and younger ages. As a result, school policy has become a prominent issue for the transgender movement. Until now there has been very little data on what most Americans think about the policies that transgender advocates seek.
And so in the summer of 2015, I conducted an online nationally representative survey that included a question about a recent California law—which many in the transgender movement consider to be a model bill–that allows students to “participate in sex-segregated programs, activities, and facilities” based on self-perception, regardless of sex assigned at birth.
Fifty-six percent of respondents supported formal policies protecting transgender students from discrimination. However, only 37 percent said they would support having their state pass a law similar to California’s. Only 30 percent supported transgender students using a restroom or locker room based upon gender identity rather than birth sex.
The survey tells us that while Americans are becoming aware of celebrity transgender individuals like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, they have not yet become comfortable with the idea of transgender bodies in places that have been segregated based on sex assigned at birth, like locker rooms and bathrooms. In public meetings in the suburban Chicago school district, many insisted on calling the trans student a “boy.” “Bathroom panic” arguments helped defeat Houston’s expansion of its equal rights ordinance. Sixty-one percent of Houston voters voted to repeal the law that included protections based upon gender identity, in addition to many other factors. The campaign against the law focused exclusively on the idea that sexual predators might use the law to assault women in restrooms, despite the fact that no such attacks have been reported.
Recently the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made a little-noticed landmark decision to treat discrimination based on gender identity or presentation as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Federal courts are beginning to apply a similar analysis, in such cases as Georgia’s Glenn v. Brumby, decided in the Eleventh Circuit.
Marriage equality for same-sex couples came after decades of focus at the local and state levels, followed by efforts to make change in the federal courts and federal bureaucracy to take that changed social consensus and apply it consistently across the nation. Working at the local level to change public opinion and school policies, one district at a time, may be part of the way that the transgender movement reaches that federal consensus. This will likely be supported, and perhaps propelled, by the supportive federal legal framework and concurrent litigation.
Jason Pierceson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Special thanks to the Survey Research Office at the University of Illinois Springfield, who helped conduct the survey. Full survey results are available.