The Transgender Bathroom Controversy: Four Essential Reads
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories related to transgender issues in education.
On Feb. 22, President Donald Trump’s administration revoked protections allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their chosen gender identity. The joint letter from the Justice Department and Education Department rescinds the May 2016 guidelines issued by former President Barack Obama.
This reversal further divides those who contend that these decisions should remain in the hands of individual states, and those who believe that gender identity should be federally protected as a civil right. Also back in the spotlight: questions as to whether transgender students are protected under the anti-discrimination provision of Title IX.
We’ve spoken with scholars from multiple disciplines around the world, who have weighed in on the social, psychological and political issues impacting transgender students. Here’s what you need to know.
Why the bathroom controversy?
In 2014, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a document that, among other things, clarified the federal civil rights protections of transgender students:
Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation.
Why then, have school bathrooms become the center of the transgender civil rights movement?
The March 2016 “bathroom bill” in North Carolina played a big part. Banning people from using public bathrooms that don’t correspond to the biological sex listed on their birth certificates, the bill catapulted transgender rights into the national spotlight. Alison Gash, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, breaks down why there was such a backlash on both sides of the aisle.
At the heart of the debate is a very real fear of violence. Gash explains why transgender students need “safe” bathrooms:
Studies show that transgender students could be harassed, sexually assaulted or subjected to other physical violence when they are required to use a gendered bathroom. One survey… found that 68 percent of participants were subjected to homophobic slurs while trying to use the bathroom. Nine percent confronted physical violence.
And why are bathrooms separated by sex in the first place? To put the gender-neutral controversy in perspective, Terry S. Kogan of the University of Utah writes on the origins of gendered bathrooms, a convention that came about as part of the now-discredited – and extremely sexist – “separate spheres” ideology of the early 1800s.
Annie Smith stands at the door of a gender neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt., Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007. Toby Talbot/AP Photo
While the debate still rages, there are plenty of reasons for hope. Genny Beemyn, Director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst holds an optimistic view on the eventual legal protections of transgender people:
I believe my research suggests that it is only a matter of time before trans people achieve equal rights and wider social acceptance. While gender is different from sexuality, the history of the struggle for same-sex marriage in this country shows why this will be the case…
Citing a natural demographic shift over time, Beemyn points out that prevalent, accepting attitudes among America’s youth will become the dominant opinion:
Millennials generally see same-sex marriage as a basic civil rights issue and back it by a wide margin. Older generations have also become more supportive during the last decade, but by a much lesser degree. This means, demographically, the number of individuals who are supportive will grow over time, while members of older generations, who are generally less supportive, will pass away.
Meanwhile, we’ve learned that anti-LGBT legislation can harm the economic welfare of America’s communities. And governmental policy and mental health professionals agree that so-called “conversion” and “reparative” therapies can be extremely damaging to LGBT youth.
Acknowledging America’s transgender youth
At the heart of this conversation lies the question of whether children can truly understand gender identity at a young age. Vanessa LoBue, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University Newark, found that before the age of five, children are quite flexible in their ideas of gender, but that by the age of 10 most children have incorporated gender into their concept of identity.
Diane Ehrensaft, Director of Mental Health at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center, University of California, San Francisco, asserts that there’s a double standard when it comes to accepting children’s ability to self-identify gender:
In traditional theories, it is assumed that children clearly know their own gender by the age of six, based on the sex assigned to them at birth, the early knowledge of that assignment, the gender socialization that helps a child know how their gender should be performed and the evolving cognitive understanding of the stability of their gender identity. Yet if a child deviates from the sex assigned to them at birth or rejects the rules of gender embedded in the socialization process, they are assumed to be too young to know their gender, suffering from either gender confusion or a gender disorder.
Despite these debates, there’s ample evidence that transgender students are very likely to be the victims of bullying and violence. While researchers have identified some potential help in the form of gay-straight alliances or media portrayals of transgender youths, policy remains the most likely tool for effecting change.
David Miller, a doctoral student in psychology at Northwestern University, discussed the importance of educational policy in changing attitudes toward and extending protection for transgender students. He referenced studies showing that policy and law can change not just the way people act, but the way people think as well.
Transgender rights across the globe
Trump’s reversal of the guidelines on bathroom use is the latest in an ongoing battle over civil rights for transgender individuals across the globe.
The World Health Organization has stated that it may no longer classify being transgender as a “disorder” in the revised version of its International Classification of Diseases, due for release in 2018. Last year, the British government published a revised policy under which prisons must now recognize and respect inmates with fluid and nonbinary genders. Also last year, the U.N. adopted a landmark resolution on the “Protection Against Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” – though by a narrow margin.
Kaitlyn Chantry is the editor of The Conversation