TO UNDERSTAND the bid of a female transgender student to use the girls’ locker room at her suburban Chicago high school, it is necessary to get past all the fear-mongering that unfortunately has become a staple of these debates about bathrooms. Listen instead to what this young girl has told school officials: about having her own sense of privacy, about being isolated and ostracized and about how all she wants is “to be a girl like every other girl.”
Her right to equal treatment was recognized by the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in a landmark ruling this month against Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Ill. Denying a student access to a gender-appropriate locker room for changing clothes simply because the student is transgender violates the Title IX bar against discrimination in federally funded education, federal officials determined. The school district has 30 days to reach a solution or face enforcement, which could include loss of federal funds.
School officials have doubled down. In a well-orchestrated public relations campaign rolled out even before the finding was made public, they contended their solution to have the student agree to the use of privacy curtains was spurned by a federal government that was overreaching in its demand “to have opposite-sex students in the same open area of the locker room.” Hardly.
It’s mystifying that some solution couldn’t be reached between the two parties, but details of the two-year investigation prompted by the girl’s complaint paint a far different picture than that suggested by the rhetoric of school officials. How the girl, who is undergoing hormone therapy and is recognized by the school as a female in all other respects (including her use of bathrooms), first asked — and was denied — an opportunity to change clothes privately within the girls’ locker room in an area such as a restroom stall. How the school’s insistence she use separate facilities for the past two years has stigmatized her. It is clear from the government’s investigation, which included inspection of the facilities and interviews with school staff about conduct common in the locker rooms, that the privacy of all students could be protected without singling out this girl for separate and discriminatory treatment. It is a point that was underscored by the hundreds of students and community members who signed a student-led petition in support of her access to the locker room.
It is estimated that there are very small numbers of transgender students, but as school superintendent Daniel E. Cates pointed out in his public statements, figuring out how to best accommodate them is an emerging and critical matter for school districts everywhere. Those challenges, though, are nothing compared with the difficulties that confront transgender adolescents, so it’s important that schools set the example by replacing emotion with reason.
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