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SPLC brief: School restroom policies should recognize students’ gender identity

Transgender students thrive when school restroom policies respect their gender identity.

For “Noah,” a simple trip to the school restroom was a stressful ordeal, one that brought on feelings of isolation.

When the 16-year-old came out to his high school classmates as a transgender male during his sophomore year, he avoided a confrontation with school officials by continuing to use the girl’s restroom at his North Carolina high school. But things changed the next year with the arrival of freshmen unaware of Noah’s story.

“If I were in the girls’ bathroom when one of the freshman girls saw me in there, they’d be like, ‘What are you doing in here? Get out,’” said Noah, whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity.

Noah would use the men’s restroom, but he would bring along a male friend to avoid possible harassment from other boys. There’s also a gender-neutral bathroom on the campus, but it was far from Noah’s classes.

One day, he used the men’s restroom rather than make the trek to the gender-neutral bathroom. As he left, the principal stopped him and told him he could only use the girls’ restroom or the gender-neutral bathroom.

“It was a huge thing in my head,” he said. “I had no idea what to do. I tried to avoid using the bathroom as much as I could. But I’ve heard stories of so many trans kids getting like [urinary tract infections] and having health problems from not wanting to go to the bathroom at all.”

Fortunately, the bathroom policy was changed shortly afterward. Several students had come out as transgender at Noah’s school, causing restrooms to quickly become an issue. Under the new policy, transgender students were free to use the bathroom of their choice. Time Out Youth, an LGBT group, also provided training to school personnel, Noah said.

But many transgender students across the nation attend schools with bathroom policies that don’t respect their gender identity – and the issue has become a flashpoint in the battle for transgender rights. That’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a brief last month in support of an American Civil Liberties Union case on behalf of a student whose school prohibits him from using the restroom that matches his gender identity.

The SPLC, working with numerous LGBT organizations, assembled accounts from transgender students to illustrate the ordeal they face at schools with exclusionary bathroom policies – a reminder during Transgender Awareness Month of the challenges to equality that remain.

“School bathroom policies that deny a student’s gender identity are discriminatory and unlawful,” said Rick Mula, an SPLC attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation. “These policies stigmatize transgender students. They can cause transgender students to endanger their health by avoiding the bathroom all day, and they can contribute to stress that leads some to struggle academically or drop out of school.”

Evie Priestman, a transgender male teen, also described how gender-neutral bathrooms can leave students feeling isolated.

“Usually the men’s and women’s restroom are close to each other,” Priestman said in the brief. “So if you’re hanging out with your friends and need to take a restroom break, you can normally all go together. But that’s not the case when you’re forced to use a gender neutral restroom. You have to walk to a different part of the building, and you feel left out. Your peers are going to one part of the building while you’re going to a different part of the building.”

A transgender boy cited in the brief reported not using the school restroom for three years. Another transgender youth developed a weak bladder from avoiding the school restroom. A 17-year-old transgender girl dropped out of school due to issues surrounding her gender.

But the brief also includes the story of a Virginia youth that illustrates the positive impact of a policy that recognizes a student’s gender identity.

“His grades were good early in high school, but there was a huge drop in his grades when he was coming out partly because he was still using the girls’ restroom,” said Beth Panilaitis, executive director of ROSMY (formerly Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth). “Ultimately, he was allowed to use the boys’ restroom, and he ended up having a good amount of support in the school, earning all As and Bs his senior year.”

As for students still facing discriminatory policies, Noah advises them to not give up hope.

“I know they feel alone right now, but there are so many people fighting for them that they don’t even know,” he said. “Change is happening little by little.”