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Getting it Right for Transgender Students

Male and female bathroom signs
Male and female bathroom signs
John Knight,
Senior Staff Attorney,
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October 23, 2015

Last week, a suburban Chicago school district – High School District 211 – announced that they would not comply with a ruling by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that the district was in violation of Title IX. The violation occurred when the District refused to allow our client, a high school girl, to use the girls’ locker room just because she is transgender. In speaking with the media and in school newsletters and a column in the suburban Daily Herald, Daniel E. Cates, the district superintendent, presented a remarkably distorted view of the process leading up to OCR’s decision. Worse still, he presented an insensitive and inaccurate depiction of what it means to be transgender and sent a message to our client and other transgender students that they are not viewed as equal to the other students in District 211.

District 211 has misstated and omitted a number of key facts regarding the process that led to their announcement last week.

My clients started meeting with the district more than two years ago to explain why their daughter should be treated as a girl at school in all ways, including when using the locker room. As the district has no policy guiding the treatment of transgender students, the parents had to initiate the discussion regarding how the school would treat their daughter in accordance with her gender. They provided medical information regarding her diagnosis with gender dysphoria and her transition to living fully as a girl, including legally changing her name and changing the gender on her passport.

In response to claims by the school that they had not had to deal with transgender students before, the parents brought in representatives from the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance to educate the school administration and staff. The parents made clear to the district that their daughter’s gender and her medical condition is not a choice and that it is essential to her health and her ability to succeed at school that she be treated as a girl, and that means being treated like a girl in all respects including locker room access.

What the district offered was a separate restroom, down a long hallway, where my client has been forced to dress for gym and the athletics she is involved in. The separation serves as a daily reminder that the school does not regard her as a girl or even a human being but as some undifferentiated “other.” For someone who had to assert her voice as a girl and struggle to be recognized, it is devastating to be told “not really” as District 211 has done.

In letters and meetings, we told the district two years ago that by segregating and isolating our client, it was violating not only federal law but also Illinois law explicitly prohibiting discrimination against transgender persons. But the district refused to comply. Only then did we file a complaint to the OCR.

The OCR process involved looking at the school facilities and interviewing coaches, gym teachers, and other staff. OCR staff tells us that (as we already knew) girls do not fully undress when getting ready for gym, some choose to dress in restroom stalls, and girls do not shower after gym (other than after swimming) or many of the sports activities. OCR explored options, including the installation of additional privacy curtains for students who want some extra privacy when dressing or showering.

The district argues it has a “creative” solution to allow transgender students to be in the gender-appropriate locker room, but only if they agree to a condition imposed on no one else – to always dress in a private area away from other students. This is just a new twist on the existing requirement that transgender students dress in a private restroom down the hall. The new proposal is no less discriminatory than the current practice – it just shifts the physical location of it. The OCR rejected the District’s demand that transgender students be required to use the private areas, while other students had a choice.

What our client wants is pretty basic – to be accepted for who she is and treated just like other students. Other students accept her. The school board and administration apparently do not. These adults should remember that many students are unhappy with their bodies – body image issues can be serious in a world filled with unrealistic and often oppressive images of physical beauty particularly for young women and girls. But no other students – no matter how uncomfortable they are with their bodies – are required to hide them. Imagine how it feels for a girl to be told that her body is so unacceptable that she must dress apart from everyone else – even if she might otherwise choose to do so. The message is loud and clear – transgender students should be ashamed of how they look and who they are.

It is upsetting to see the superintendent say that the district is “sensitive” to the needs of transgender students and supportive of them. The district’s actions are the farthest thing from being supportive. You can’t defend discrimination by claiming you’re nice about it. Most damaging, the superintendent asserts that a girl who is transgender has a “male body” and that transgender students are “of the opposite sex” when defending the district’s position. Such assertions are wrong as a matter of science and offensive because they serve to challenge and undermine the very core of a person’s identity. A transgender girl is female. She is a girl through and through – not something in between as the district suggests. And although unnecessary to make a transgender person “really female” or “really male,” many transgender young people including my client have undergone medical interventions to conform their body to their gender. By making these statements, the district undermines the legitimacy of these students’ identities and fails in its stated mission to care for all 12,000 students in its care.

The district claims that its proposed solution for requiring transgender students to dress in a separate area is the best solution as it protects the privacy of the other students in the district. But this isn’t a real issue for students. The only students’ privacy that is being violated is that of transgender students who are outed by the district’s forcing them to dress in a separate area.

The sad thing in all of this is that the superintendent is completely unwilling to accept that this is discrimination. Rather than recognize this – and the harm that his policies are doing to one of his students – he makes himself out to be the victim, blames the process and claims that he is only being “reasonable” and standing on “principles.”

The superintendent’s message raises a serious question about our identity, as a community and a nation – are we ready to accept that shaming an extremely vulnerable group of students is reasonable and principled? What a terrible lesson this message sends the District 211 students and community. Most astounding is the superintendent’s claim that forced segregation amounts to “inclusiveness” and protects students’ “dignity.” It is not. The school district is discriminating against my client. And instead of seeing this as an opportunity to teach acceptance, it is teaching all the students in the school that discrimination is okay.

What a truly devastating message to send. Ever the optimist, I remain hopeful that the district will come around to recognizing that those who discriminate against the vulnerable and disenfranchised are not remembered kindly in history – and will join the many other school districts that treat their transgender students with the respect they deserve.

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