Schools should do the right thing for transgender students

Four weeks have passed since the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued guidance for schools regrading transgender students and the use of restrooms and locker rooms, and I’m still trying to figure out why opponents consider this such a big deal.

The truth is, no one is likely to notice if transgender men use men’s restrooms and transgender women use women’s restrooms. They’ve probably been doing it for years, and no one has objected. The same should be true for transgender boys and girls.

Not to get too graphic, but most people involved in this issue will be doing their business in restroom stalls, which provide a measure of privacy. Transgender boys won’t be using urinals, right? And neither will transgender girls.

Some critics have suggested it will be awkward to have transgender students taking group showers in locker rooms that they share with students who have different genitalia. But honestly, are there any schools where students still shower after gym class? I thought kids quit doing that years ago.

The most visceral response comes from people who insist that letting students use facilities that align with their gender identity will put young children at risk. The idea seems to be that transgender women may actually be men who are faking it – possibly child molesters who will put on dresses in order to use women’s bathrooms and prey on little girls.

Never mind that there have been no reports of transgender women doing anything like this. If a male child molester decided to try that trick, he would be violating all sorts of serious laws. A state statute that says he must use a men’s restroom wouldn’t be much of a deterrent.

But the federal guidance is arguably a big deal for transgender students, who may feel unsafe, for good reason, if they use facilities where they are not comfortable. The American Psychological Association says that using appropriate restrooms is a key factor in transitioning between genders.

If anyone is likely to have reason to feel unsafe in a school restroom, it would be a transgender girl forced by state law or school policy to use the boys’ facilities.

As Suzanne Eckes, a school law expert in the Indiana University School of Education, told me, people who are transgender typically develop their gender identity at an early age, and transgender youth are likely to be bullied and to experience higher-than-average rates of depression and suicide. (Note: Watch Eckes interviewed for a PBS Newshour segment on the issue that aired June 7).

“It’s not like you wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m female,’” she said.

It also matters for schools, which have faced bewildering and contradictory directions from state governments and the courts. School officials may face pushback if they implement policies to accommodate transgender students. But now at least they can blame it on the feds.

It may take some effort to comply. But remember there was resistance a generation ago when the Americans with Disabilities Act required public facilities to be made accessible and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required schools to accommodate students with disabilities.

Who would argue today that people with disabilities don’t have a right to use public facilities and to attend public schools?

“Yes, there was some cost” to complying with those laws, Eckes said. “But it was the right thing to do.”

This is too.

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