Bathroom Battles: Scaremongering Abounds About Transgender Public Restroom Usage
Photo by Ashli Hill HISD Trustees Juliet Stipeche (left) Anna Eastman (right) spoke to the Houston City Council in support of HERO, assuring the council the district's own gender-identity protection policy had been a success.
Last year Ada was given pink Converse sneakers, which she called her "trans cons." The whole family bought sneakers, and Ada looked at the shoes as a means to try to express herself in a way that would attract little notice.
It didn't work. The mocking she experienced the first time she wore them to school was so cruel that Ada threw away her new shoes and refused ever to wear them again. She also wouldn't allow her mother to intervene, fearing further harassment.
"She's really emotionally mature," said Ada's mom. "She knows that she really shouldn't say certain things just yet because a lot of people won't understand. We're trying to give her the balance between being who she wants to be and the shitty world that we live in."
Concerns about students like Ada are the reason the HISD Board of Trustees voted unanimously in 2011 to implement a policy of nondiscrimination for both students and employees that included gender identity. It was a policy born of years of activism on the part of groups like the Young Stonewall Democrats and transgender activist Jenifer Rene Pool.
For HISD Board President Juliet Stipeche, the issue has always been about bullying and the safety of children.
"When you look at the issue of bullying, you see that children that are made fun of or mocked or terrorized are vulnerable," Stipeche says. "The policy wants to make sure we have protections. No child should have to suffer. School should be safe. The problem of bullying is tied into this. We don't want people made fun of because of their race or gender or anything else."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBT students are at an increased risk for both violence and suicide. Eight out of ten report verbal harassment and four out of ten say they've been physically assaulted, according to a 2009 survey of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program says its data indicates that as many as 50 percent of transgender youths will attempt suicide at least once before the age of 21.
The CDC reports that all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, experience less depression, substance abuse and academic truancy as a result of education initiatives that require the respectful treatment of transgender students.
In the more than 200 HISD schools, students aren't separated by gender. They go to mixed gym classes, and there is no difference in the layout of rest-room facilities, where all the bathrooms have stalls to afford students privacy. According to board member Anna Eastman: "People have reached out to me when their kids were wanting to use the facilities of the gender they identified with. I know it's made a difference in their lives."
The new HISD policy passed without opposition on two readings in August and September board meetings. Dave Wilson, a Houston Community College trustee known for rallying opposition to LGBT rights, attended the second meeting, but Stipeche could not recall if he spoke. Most people in the massive district seemed to recognize the initiative as healthy.
"Teachers report in their classrooms that students feel much more open to asking questions regarding sexual identity," Stipeche says. "We've not had any incidents of massive protests or any indication that the world has turned upside down. The schools go on. The kids are learning, and we have a policy that makes sense. One of the proudest moments I've had is to assist and vote in favor of these changes."
Eastman as well is proud of and has high hopes for the policy. When told about Ada and the bullying and unwelcoming environment that she still felt surrounded her at school, Eastman admitted that changing the culture across the board is a tremendous and ongoing challenge.
"Not every teacher and administrator is going to automatically know what to do with a transgender child," she says. "However, with this policy in place, there's a responsibility for the schools and staff to accommodate and support them. They need a person they can come to."
The steady success of the HISD policy is what prompted Stipeche and Eastman to attend the city council meetings on HERO and offer their experiences. They wanted to point out that such widespread nondiscrimination had made their teachers and staff feel safer and that their students had become more accepting and willing to tolerate classmates who fall outside traditional heterosexual lines.