Opinions, Column

A Policy Assessment Of Transgender Rights

Currently, one of five high schools and two alternative schools of Township High School District 211 in Palatine, a suburb of Chicago, is pitted against the federal government in a dispute over the treatment of transgender students who demand access to changing rooms of the gender with which they identify. The disagreement began with a student who was born male but identifies as female demanding full access to the girls’ locker room. The student has functionally lived as a girl for several years and has played on the girls’ sports teams.

The superintendent of District 211, Daniel Cates, has denied the student full access to the girls’ changing rooms, and instead has offered to allocate funds for a private dressing room if the student does not wish to use the male-designated facilities. Cates, understandably, must balance the privacy rights of over 12,000 students and the rights of a group with particular needs—the transgender community. The superintendent asserts that the privacy of the vast majority of students will be infringed upon if transgender students are allowed to change in the same locker room as students of the gender with which they identify.

I am having a tremendous amount of difficulty grappling with this issue myself, and it is challenging to take a definitive stance. I sympathize with the superintendent, who must cater to a broader public community while accommodating the interests of a minority. For what it’s worth, I feel that Cates is being very accommodating by offering separate facilities for the student.

In fact, Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, somewhat agrees with me by saying that she “applaud[s] the school district for trying to come to an accommodation.” She respectfully argues, however, that the transgender student should be treated exactly like the other girls and should be permitted to change with them in a communal locker room. Keisling concludes by saying that “it is clear that the school district doesn’t buy that she is a girl.”

A very important distinction to make in this case is the that of the private and public assessment of the transgender cause. For this reason, I do not think that Keisling is justified in asserting that the school district does not appreciate or see the validity in the gender identification of the student. This is a baseless claim. The crystallization of the issue is that the school district must uphold the broader societal imperative of protecting the privacy of other students while also being sympathetic and accommodating to the transgender cause. Offering a private changing room, in my opinion, is an appropriate and legitimate reconciliation of these two responsibilities.

The controversy officially began in 2014 when the student’s family, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a complaint with the Department of Education. The ACLU ruled unsurprisingly that Cates’ decision was blatantly and overtly discriminatory. The reasoning was that it violated Title IX, an Amendment of the Higher Education Act which states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Officials of School District 211 and those of the Board of Education struggled for months to find a compromise that would ultimately reach the specifications of the current “deal” that transgender students will be accommodated to change and shower in private. Additionally, the District also made note of the ways in which it is supportive of its transgender community: transgender students can list their self-identified gender on school forms, play on the sports teams of the genders with which they identify, and finally, use the bathroom of that gender. In my opinion, allowing bathroom usage is an appropriate progressive step and is certainly praiseworthy from the perspective of the transgender community.

Yet, the Department of Education demands that the school district cater to all of the student’s demands, leveraging financial assistance for a more accommodating “compromise” (the district stands to lose $6 million in federal funding and a substantial amount in legal fees). This is exceedingly problematic because the State of Illinois is currently facing tremendous financial hardship, resulting in paltry state funding for education as it is.

The Economist ends its commentary on the issue in the following way: “It takes courage to come out as transgender and possibly even more courage to sue a high school. The Obama administration is more supportive of the rights of transgender people than any previous administration. Much more needs to be done to end the discrimination and harassment of America’s transgender population, which is small, at around 1 percent of the population, but growing as more young people feel emboldened to come out.”

I feel that this completely misses the point. It is entirely inappropriate to describe the accommodations made by District 211 as “discrimination and harassment.” In many ways, the deal struck is somewhat progressive. It expands the rights of transgender individuals inasmuch as the Obama administration just recently filed a legal brief in a federal appeals court backing a transgender student’s challenge of his school’s policy banning him from using the bathroom that corresponds with the gender he identifies with.

Ultimately, I don’t think that the current stipulations of the agreement deny the right to identify as a different gender, nor do they dismiss the validity of such an identification. It might be appropriate to consider what lurks in the background: if this situation were to be considered a violation of transgender autonomy (which it does not seem to be), does that justify removing funding for an educational system already so mired in financial trouble that thousands of children and young adults are not receiving an adequate education?

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics

November 8, 2015