Transgender Students: the Debate Over Bathroom Policies

By Sierra Fang-Horvath, Print Editor-in-Chief

// The shrill bell rings at 9:45 on the dot, signaling the beginning of brunch. Acalanes students pour out of classrooms and into open-air hallways, heading to their lockers, the front and back quads, and, of course, the bathrooms.

   But for some students, break isn’t an opportunity for them to use the restroom; in fact, the entire school day isn’t.

   “I try to avoid the bathroom, actually,” junior Avery Cowen said. “But if I really, really, really need to go, I generally use the girls’ bathroom, but I don’t go unless it’s during class when I know that no one else will be in the bathroom.”

   His bathroom dilemma began at the end of his freshman year. He had begun to dress more masculinely and for a while, didn’t know how to describe his gender identity.

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Maddy McCormick

   “I kept telling myself, ‘I’m just a tomboy.’ But then closer to the end of freshman year I came out with a different name and different pronouns,” Cowen, who was assigned female at birth, said.

   According to Cowen, he had been “stressing out” about the transition, which affected his grades. He found solace with his Acalanes guidance counselor Anne Schonauer. With her assistance, he told his teachers about his new name and pronouns. The counselor put Cowen in contact with an older transgender student, which further helped Cowen in the transition.

   So where is Cowen allowed to use the restroom? The answer may be surprising to anyone following the still in-progress G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, a two year-long court case that has garnered widespread media attention.

   The case began in late 2014 when Gavin Grimm, a transgender student at Gloucester High School in Virginia, faced backlash for using the boys’ restroom. He had already been using the boys’ restroom for two months with consent of school administrators as part of his “medical treatment for severe gender dysphoria,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

   However, complaints from parents and students soon galvanized the school board into adopting a new policy that denied Grimm access to the restroom that corresponded with his gender identity. Grimm, represented by the ACLU, filed a preliminary injunction against the policy. A district court dismissed Grimm’s case, arguing that Title IX, a federal law banning sex-based exclusion in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, does not extend to transgender individuals.

   Grimm then appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the district court’s ruling in April of 2016 using a different interpretation of Title IX: the law does extend to transgender individuals, which means that the Gloucester County School Board violated federal law by passing its 2014 policy that requires students to use the restroom that corresponds with the gender they were assigned at birth.

   The Obama administration in turn published guidance, echoing the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling, after which the school district appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in March of 2017.

   However, just a month before the case was to be argued in front of the Supreme Court, the newly-inaugurated Trump administration reversed the Obama administration’s guidance. Many argue that the controversial move has rescinded the rights of transgender students. Sean Spicer, Trump’s Press Secretary, later clarified that the President believed that individual school districts should create policies in alignment with local and state law without the influence of federal guidance.

   Trump’s move halted the case in its tracks. Despite encouragement from the ACLU for the Supreme Court to still hear the case, the justices sent the arguments back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for further consideration in light of the Trump administration’s rescindment of the Obama-era guidance. The case is set to be decided later this year.

   In contrast with the Gloucester School District’s policy, the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) has a very different approach. California Assembly Bill No. 1266, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013, prohibits schools from “discriminating on the basis of specified characteristics, including gender, gender identity, and gender expression,” regardless of the gender listed on the student’s records. Restroom and locker room-use falls under this bill.

   Under this bill, Cowen is allowed to use whichever restroom he feels comfortable in. Cowen and his guidance counselor agreed that a component of his transition would be that he could use the restrooms of his choice.

   According to Acalanes Principal Travis Bell, this one-on-one interaction between students and staff is a key component of the school’s relationship with its transgender students.

   “Everything with students is case-by-case. We really want to hear from the students and work with them on creating the best possible solutions for each individual,” Bell said. “We work to make learning environments safe for every student. Every student feels different and we want to make sure that we have the freedom to give each student what’s best for them.”

   Although many might expect this policy of allowing transgender students to use the facilities of their choice to generate backlash from opposing parents and community members, both Bell and AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson could not identify a single instance in which a complaint was registered with the district.

   If a student did complain about being uncomfortable with a transgender classmate using the facilities of their gender identity, Nickerson adamantly pledged that AUHSD would do everything in its power to resolve the situation without violating the rights of the transgender student.

   “Hypothetically, we’d have a counselor or administrator work with the student to try and understand their discomfort and try to come up with a solution to make them more comfortable that would not involve taking away the right from the transgender student,” Nickerson said.

   Despite the go-ahead from administration to use the restroom of his choice, Cowen generally chooses not to use the boys’ restroom. The two times that he did go in, he felt extremely uncomfortable. When asked where this discomfort and fear stems from, Cowen explained that although many administrators, teachers, and students are okay with it, there are fringe individuals that aren’t.

   “I’m afraid of whether they’ll be like, ‘Why is there a girl in here?’ Not necessarily that they’ll do something right then, but there’s the possibility that they’ll talk to other people and get pissed at me. This is a super chill environment but the fear is always there,” Cowen said.

   Although Cowen has not experienced any direct discrimination, he has witnessed numerous micro and macro aggressions, particularly slurs.

   “A lot of the issues are just out of ignorance, and out of the fact that people don’t understand what it all actually means,” Cowen said.

   According to the Acalanes Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) advisor Erik Honda, this reminds him of the Acalanes atmosphere in the 1990s when QSA, then called the Gay Straight Alliance, first began. Honda described the “pushback and negativity and homophobic horrors” that greeted QSA at its birth, including how one gay student would be punched and called “fag” everyday for a year. While Honda takes comfort in the fact that Cowen and other transgender students have thus far not faced bullying of that kind, he hopes that transgender students can one day feel more comfortable at school.

   “It’s good to hear that there’s not violence or intimidation. But we’re not where we could be, which is a total feeling of comfort and connection,” Honda said.

   Cowen’s struggle with the restroom situation is closely shared by transgender people, especially students, across the country. In light of this, a growing push for gender neutral restrooms has emerged.

   According to Jay Wu, the Media Relations Manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), a gender neutral restroom is a bathroom that people “can go into without regard to gender, as opposed to the vast majority of public restrooms which are gendered either male or female.” This alternative could be utilized by anyone, not just transgender individuals, and has thus been adopted by many colleges across the nation in buildings and dorms.

   Acalanes has one designated gender neutral restroom in the Nurse’s Office, located behind the Attendance Office. This single-stall lockable restroom has been utilized by students going through gender identity transitions, according to Bell. The possibility of adopting centralized gender neutral restrooms has been brought up for discussion at both the Acalanes and district level. However, problems have arisen, mostly surrounding logistical and safety concerns.

   According to Cowen, people have said to him, “If you can use any bathroom then I would totally pretend to be a girl to get into the girl’s room.” This debate regarding safety has exploded in recent years, with some claiming that sexual predators could take advantage of transgender restroom policies, while others disregard those claims as bogus. At Acalanes, their worries are much different.

   “There are concerns about safety any time you can have a person lock themselves in an area,” Bell said.

   In a locked restroom, students could participate in unlawful activities without the possibility of someone walking in on them. This contrasts with the multi-stall, permanently-open restrooms that Acalanes currently has, which makes it easy for staff to access the bathrooms and assist students in case of an emergency.

   Bell expanded that Acalanes would have to “rethink our facilities” in order to adopt gender neutral restrooms on campus.

   One possibility for schools is to convert existing gendered restrooms into gender neutral ones, a topic that, according to Nickerson, hasn’t been talked about much at a district level. According to Honda, this conversion would be cost-free and extremely simple.

   “They have gender neutral bathroom signs and it wouldn’t be hard to put that over one of the pairs of boys’/girls’ bathrooms and have it be opened to anybody who’s comfortable,” Honda said. “It’s not a heavy lift and it wouldn’t cost any money. Since the district has a fairly open policy about students using the restroom that they prefer and that has happened without any consequence, it’s hard for me to imagine that there would be pushback from the community or outside forces.”

   Despite the apparent ease of converting a current gendered restroom into a gender neutral one, Nickerson said that the district has not “identified a particular need” for making this change. Bell echoed the Superintendent’s opinion.

   “There hasn’t been a need to have that centralized gender neutral bathroom. I think that the things we have in place are working and we’ll keep using those until they’re not working,” Bell said.

   The QSA, however, has reopened the option as a viable possibility for Acalanes in the near future. The club just needs to coalesce and make its argument in favor of gender neutral restrooms, according to Honda.

   “There was one QSA meeting this year where they said, ‘We need this!’ And I said, ‘Ok, so make an appointment with the principal and sit down and have a conversation.’ I don’t see any downsides, but, again, it takes someone asking for it,” Honda said.

   Honda added that he couldn’t see the district creating gender neutral restrooms “just because they decide it’s the right thing to do.” The students would have to be the key activists in implementing a change.

   Acalanes and the district, as a microcosm of the “progressive Bay Area, with rainbow flags flying,” as Honda described it, appears to have a relatively strong and supportive relationship with its transgender students, in terms of both restrooms and in general.

   But for Cowen and other advocates of transgender students using the restrooms of their gender identity, there is still progress to be made. While the bathroom debate may seem trivial to some people, its importance cannot be overlooked.

   “For most transgender people, if they can’t use the restroom that fits their gender in public, they can’t really participate in public life,” Wu said. “This is not really about people using the restroom of their choice. I think framing it as a choice is something that a lot of people have been doing, and it’s not super accurate because many transgender people don’t have a choice.”

   For Cowen, the restroom debate fits into the larger picture of transgender rights and equality. Using the bathroom in public is something that many people take for granted, Cowen said, because it generally isn’t an option for him. By respecting transgender students’ choices to use the restroom of their gender identity, Cowen says that it normalizes transgender people in our society.

   “People want to pretend that those weird things don’t exist so they don’t have to deal with it. If you let, say, a transgender woman use the women’s bathroom without any problem, suddenly it’s an acceptable thing, a thing that’s real,” Cowen said. “It lets trans people not have to pretend that they’re not trans and it makes it a present, actual thing.”

   Cowen added that more discussion must be nourished about transgender issues, whether it be about bathrooms or not, in order to enlighten those who are uninformed.

   “Don’t make it such a taboo topic. No one talks about queer issues or trans issues unless it’s directly an issue for them. Just normalize it,” Cowen said. “If it’s understood more, then people are less afraid or weirded out by it. Make it a conversation, because it’s just whispers right now.”

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