TransAmerica: Coming soon to a school near you

Should a male student be allowed to dress as a girl and use girls’ restrooms?

Posted Jul 31, 2009

"Do Children need to be protected from transgender people? Do they need to be shielded from that?" This was Fox Network's Bill O'Reilly's question posed to a guest commenting on a recent controversy in Oregon over a transgender mayor and his presence at a youth event. (Thanks to Joe.My.God. for his post about this clip.) This echoes some parents' concerns over a child in Maine who has an "M" on his birth certificate, but had gotten permission from the school to use the girls' restroom because she identifies as a girl. The trans student was then harassed by another boy in the school who followed her into the bathroom and called her "faggot". The perpetrator was encouraged by his grandfather to use the girls' restroom as long as the trans student was given permission to do so. In a Bangor Daily News story, the grandfather was quoted as saying, "Little boys do not belong in the little girls room, and vice versa," he said. "This isn't just about my kid. A lot of children have come up to me and said that this isn't right."

Dr. Phil recently covered this phenomenon on a show about "gender confused" kids. Although this show's title is problematic and gave talk-time to a conservative representative from Focus on the Family who asserted that parents needed to train their kids to behave appropriately for their sex, Dr. Phil did help shine a light on an issue that is becoming more prevalent as youth are choosing to express their transgender identities at younger ages. Many people are uncomfortable with the concept of transgender and transsexual people.  Addressing these issues effectively often means handling controversy carefully by educating the community in order to reduce discrimination and violence towards that person. What these cases tell me is that we need so much more public education about transgender and transsexual people to reduce the unfounded fears and hysteria that emerge in response to a gender-variant person.

Should a student who is legally male be allowed to dress as a girl and use girls' restrooms at school? vice versa?

The simple answer and one that has been upheld in courts is YES. The Maine Human Rights Commission ruled that the school discriminated against the transgender student by not allowing her access to the girls' restroom. The state of Massachusetts had a similar case where a principal was repeatedly sending a child home because her birth certificate labelled her as male, but she identified as a girl and wore girls' clothing and accessories to school. It was found that such treatment violated sex discrimination protections provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and that the school could not place restrictions on her attire based on her sex assigned at birth. The Appeals Court supported the lower court's decision to issue an injunction requiring the school to permit Pat to attend, "in clothing and accessories that express her female [sic] gender identity" (Doe v. Brockton School Committee, 2000).

The quote about "female gender identity" from the decision indicates that there are misunderstandings and a need for some clarification of terms when talking about trans issues, particularly sex, gender, and sexuality. I'll explore these more in-depth in a future post, but the simple overview is as follows:
Sex: medico-legal category to classify bodies; male & female are the only legally recognized categories, but intersex and transsexual should also be included here. Doctors and sexual partners are really the only ones who need to know this.
Gender: a social identity category that defines how individuals identify and want to be recognized by others; man, woman, and transgender are the most commonly recognized categories, however youth are creatively using new terms to express their identities such as boi, genderqueer, transman.
Sexuality: describes various aspects of one's sexual self including: identity, behaviour, and orientation; the most common sexual orientation and identity labels include: bisexual, gay, heterosexual, and lesbian. Other categories emerging in youth cultures include: fluid, heteroflexible, homoflexible, omnisexual, pansexual, and queer (Meyer, 2009).

So in the context of schools, particularly elementary schools, we are dealing with issues of sex and gender NOT sexuality. The tensions between how bodies are legally categorized at birth and how we grow to understand ourselves in society cause confusion and discomfort for many. It is important to note that transgender people pose no more physical threat to others' safety and privacy in public restrooms or other sex-segregated areas. As a matter of fact, they are the ones who need the most protection. A recent study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (2009) reported:

• 90% of transgender students heard derogatory remarks, such as "dyke" or "faggot," sometimes, often, or frequently in school.
• almost all transgender students had been verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) in the past year at school because of their sexual orientation (89%) and their gender expression (87%)
• over half of all transgender students had been physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation (55%) and their gender expression (53%).

I would argue that they pose less of a threat due to their histories of being targeted for harassment and violence; therefore they often want to be as invisible as possible at times and should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice. However, if they are at-risk in the student restrooms and locker rooms, they should be provided a secure location to use the toilet and change at their request. The general student body may be initially uncomfortable with accommodating a transitioning student, but with some education and clear support from the leadership of the school, this can be resolved.

So how can schools work with transgender students and their families to ensure their safety? The Toronto District School Board in Ontario, Canada provides a helpful case study. They created a fully integrated team of professionals who worked closely with the student and her family to provide support and a clear line of communications during one trans student's transition. The TDSB team were relatively successful in helping set the stage for this student's transition by using the following strategies:
1. having a policy that supported the student's right to transition and the school had the responsibility to "grant that right and to ensure the student's safety and comfort"
2. inviting a social worker with expertise in trans issues to work with the school's administration to identify potential barriers and solutions
3. holding informational meetings to inform and educate the core instructional staff working with the student,
4. making contacts with local BGLQT community groups for resources and support,
5. holding meetings with the family, after briefing school staff, to discuss the transition plan,
6. informing the school's community police officer in order to help develop a plan that could best ensure the student's physical safety in and around school,
7. sending a letter out to all school staff announcing the date of the student's transition and providing basic information about her preferred name and pronouns.

Other key advice offered by one of the youth workers from this experience is: don't panic, build trust, inform youth of options, and connect trans youth and their families with community resources. For a copy of the letter that was sent and a more detailed description of this case, please see Callender (2007).

Kris Wells (2009) at the University of Alberta has also compiled a helpful list of items for parents to keep in mind when their child starts to identify as transgender and asks to begin publicly transitioning. He notes that each individual's process is unique, but there are some things parents can do to best support their child through this complicated process:
1. Create a Transition Plan.
2. Be flexible - the plan may change if situations warrant it.
3. Plan for how you will share this plan with others.
4. Choose your allies carefully.
5. Welcome questions about the transition and be patient with inquiries.
6. Stress the medical aspects about gender dysphoria and possible causes for transsexualism
7. Enlist the support of school personnel: teachers, administrators, counsellors, social workers
8. Children should be encouraged to dress to reflect their gender identity
9. Be prepared for resistance and talk through strategies and responses to help your child develop resilience and coping mechanisms.
10. Consider the school calendar when announcing a public transition. Perhaps the last few weeks of the school year may allow the initial shock to dissipate over the summer and allow the child a fresh start in the next school year.

The internet can be a valuable place to search for information and resources to help parents and educators work to understand and better support transgender youth.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Keep reading!

Callender, D. R. (2008). When Matt became Jade: Working with a youth who made a gender transition change in high school. In I. Killoran & K. P. Jimenez (Eds.), Unleashing the Unpopular: Talking about sexual orientation and gender diversity in education (pp. 37-52). Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

Doe v. Brockton Sch. Comm. (No. 2000-J-638 Mass. App. 2000).

Greytak, E., Kosciw, J., & Diaz, E. (2009). Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in our Nations' Schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.

Meyer, E. J. (2009). Creating schools that value sexual diversity. In S. Steinberg (Ed.), Diversity and Multiculturalism: A Reader (pp. 173-192). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Meyer, E. J., & Stader, D. (2009). Queer Youth and the Culture Wars: From the Classroom to the Courtroom in Australia, Canada, and the United States Journal of LGBT Youth, 6(2), 135-154.

Wells, K. (2009). Supporting Trans-Identified Students: Strategies for a Successful In-School Transition. Paper presented at the Queer Issues in the Study of Education and Culture, Ottawa, ON.