Over the years, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—LGBT—people have fought for equal rights in the courts, city halls, and state capitols.
But perhaps one of the most important places to have this conversation is in schools, where many students first realize who they are.
In Louisville, that conversation has been taking place around transgender student rights and it started at Atherton High School.
There were complaints from parents about a female transgender student using the girl’s restroom, though she’s male bodied. Those complaints led to a gymnasium packed with a couple hundred people, mostly students and many from other schools.
“Atherton High School shall not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, color, religion, disability, marital status, national origin, race, sex, sexual orientation nor gender identity.”
That’s the newly proposed non-discrimination policy on which the school’s decision-making council will soon have a second reading.
In Kentucky, it’s up to individual schools or districts to choose whether they want to add unique protections for transgender students. They’re also responsible for determining the specific rights or procedures those students will have while in school.
Some states have laws (California) or guidelines (Maine) clarifying transgender student rights. But many schools around the country are still working out the details.
It’s important this conversation is happening in schools, because more students are coming out. Science tells us we identify our genders early on, and it doesn’t always reflect our bodies. Also, students will tell you it’s not a choice.
“I had always been very masculine growing up,” says Max St. John, who goes to school at Doss High School. “I always wore my brothers hand me down clothes. I never liked wearing girly clothes at all. I hated it when my mom made me wear a dress to my graduation I hated it.”
Transgender students go through great lengths to pass as their preferred gender identity. Some take estrogen or testosterone. Others, with parental permission and a couple hundred bucks, may change their name.
Maybe even a larger deal, especially for students who might not be able to afford these costs, is pronoun usage, like him and her.
St. John says teachers at Doss High are very supportive. But one day there was a substitute teacher who wasn’t given instructions explaining St. John’s situation. And that led to a fight, and a misunderstanding.
This is why many students say communicating with school staff is important. But many schools aren’t being guided by school policy. So, the response is on a school-by-school basis.
The U.S. Department of Education this year added Title IX guidance for schools to grant transgender students protections. Any school receiving federal funds is supposed to adhere to the rules. The emphasis is to prevent sexual assault and harassment—because many transgender and other LGB students face discrimination.
But specific policies—for example, can transgender students use the bathroom of their identified gender?—is not spelled out.
And this is why school policies vary.
“Title IX certainly doesn’t require opening up opposite sex facilities,” attorney Clint Elliott argued before the JCPS school board earlier this month, opposing Atherton’s decision to allow access to certain bathrooms and locker rooms for transgender students.
“Think about students of faiths, all faiths, who have sincere genuine religious convictions and beliefs relating to moral virtues and purity,” he says.
Elliot’s concerns are common among those who oppose similar policies in other areas of the country. But more school districts are adopting models that clarify specific rights for transgender students.
(Check out New York City’s school district’s policy. It’s very similar to other model policies.
Despite concerns from some parents, in school districts like San Francisco and Los Angeles where they’ve had longstanding transgender policies, there hasn’t been any significant issues.
But because this idea is new for many schools, transgender students often have to compromise. For many, these compromises include using a gender neutral bathroom or staying in separate rooms on field trips.
At Atherton High, Principal Thomas Aberli says he speaks for the “vast majority” of the Louisville community when he says he’s certain the proposed policy for transgender students, which he’s already following, are here to stay.
Besides the policy, the school decision-making council also needs to vote the “procedure” policy —that’s the way the school will meet its obligation described in the nondiscrimination policy, Aberli says.
For this, the council will vote on two ideas. One is what’s in place now. Transgender students can use the facilities of their identified gender. The other is supported by the group Alliance Defending Freedom, to which Elliot is connected. It would create separate bathrooms for transgender students.
But Aberli doesn’t think that one will pass.
If there isn’t a majority vote on one of the ideas—that’s 7 of 12 school council members—then Aberli’s current procedure will stand, he says.
The buzz surrounding Atherton’s situation has garnered more than 1,000 survey responses about this issue, some from around the country. An overwhelming majority, he says, support stronger transgender policies.
From the East Coast, Harper Jean Tobin is following the story. Tobin is the policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington D.C.
She also graduated from Atherton High School in 1999. For her, it’s a personal story.
“I had such mixed emotions about that, trying to think back to being 14 or 15 and having people debate me and my identity and whether I should have to walk across school past the restrooms that other girls get to use,” she says.
Fifteen years later, Tobin works for one of the leading national groups advocating for transgender equality. She still sees that fear, concern, and questions exist about transgender issues, but she says schools like her alma mater are trying to teach.
“Atherton is like so many other schools in that way, where it’s just a learning process about something that’s new for a lot of people,” she says.
Tobin says if she was in high school now, she might have come out earlier.