Massachusetts public schools may have to rearrange locker rooms, restrooms, and sports teams to comply with a new interpretation of laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender children.
According to the guidelines, schools must treat students as male or female on the basis of what the child says his or her sex is, regardless of their physical or biological makeup or prior beliefs about their sex.
The guidelines, effective immediately, follow a November 2011 state law prohibiting transgender discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas where other forms of discrimination is already prohibited.
“Every child has the right to a safe, supportive environment within their school,” said Lauren Green, program coordinator for Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Teachers, principals, and “people who had experience dealing with transgender children” helped write the guidelines, she said, which provide “overall guidance for what we do regularly.”
The state’s education department is “not really commenting on why this started or why it’s necessary,” Green said. “The guidelines are pretty clear.”
Young transgender children are rare. A Colorado six-year-old born a boy whose parents call a girl prompted their lawsuit this spring after school officials assigned the child a private bathroom.
‘Stunning’ Free-Speech Interference
The guidelines leave no room for disagreement or confusion over sexual identity shifts, using the example of a male student, John, who later considers himself a female and begins using the name Jane. In such a case, teachers must refer to the student with female pronouns and the new name, the guidelines say.
“If students do not act accordingly,” the guidelines say, “you may speak to them privately after class to request that they do. Continued, repeated, and intentional misuse of names and pronouns may erode the educational environment for Jane. It should not be tolerated and can be grounds for student discipline.”
The guidelines pose “a stunning interference with people’s freedom of speech and freedom of thought,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. “Essentially, it would be forcing people to affirm things that are contrary to their own personal religious convictions.”
Green declined to comment on these concerns.
Students alone are responsible for determining their own gender identity, the guidelines say, which they and the school may, in some circumstances, hide from parents.
The guidelines note some students “are not openly [transgender] at home for reasons such as safety concerns or lack of acceptance.” In these situations, schools must consult with the student before using male or female pronouns in correspondence with parents.
“This interferes with [parental] authority in case of parents who may not want to affirm a gender transition for their child, and who on the contrary may be seeking to help the child overcome their gender identity issues and become comfortable with their born sex,” Sprigg said.
The guidelines will likely cause confusion for children, Sprigg said, as they compel authority figures to tell children the opposite of what their own eyes and experience indicate.
He said traditional standards “based on apparent biological differences” are much easier for students to understand than standards based on allegedly “innate personality characteristics.”
Locker rooms and restrooms will likely cause the most concern, according to the guidelines.
“A girl who does not want to be exposed to male genitalia in the locker room and a parent who doesn’t want their daughter to be exposed has no recourse,” Sprigg said.
Teachers may question a student’s gender identity if they “have a credible basis for believing that the student’s gender-related identity is being asserted for some improper purpose,” the guidelines state.
Green said teachers will deal with these situations appropriately: “They are adults. I’m sure they can handle this.”
‘More Feelings of Discomfort’
The guidelines mention two types of discomfort—that of the transgender student now using the opposite changing facilities and that of the other students now seeing an opposite-sex student use their facilities, noted Emmett McGroarty, director of the Preserve Innocence Initiative for the American Principles Project.
The guidelines instruct schools to have transgender students use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity, or a unisex facility. They say other students’ discomfort should not be grounds for denying the transgender student access to a sex-separated facility.
But granting a transgender student access to opposite-sex bathrooms and locker rooms doesn’t relieve students’ uncomfortable feelings, McGroarty said: “I think if anything it creates more feelings of discomfort among the students who were there and the student who was granted access. It doesn’t strike me as any kind of solution.”
“I certainly agree with the idea that we have to have a good, welcoming environment, a secure environment for children in schools,” McGroarty said. “Part of that is, obviously, you have to teach children a sense of modesty and respect.”
Putting naked boys in girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms or vice versa degrades the respect adults want to teach children to have for themselves and others, he said.
“If you have a work of art, a work of treasure, you shelter it so it is protected, and I think the human body is the same thing, particularly among children. You want them to grow up [thinking], ‘I’m special and my body is sacred and it’s not to be carelessly regarded by anyone.'”
Image by Nir Tober.