Why We Should Absolutely Let Transgender Students Use Locker Rooms With Cisgender Students
Yet another bathroom panic has broken out over a transgender student using the school locker room that matches her gender identity, this time at suburban Chicago's Township High School District 211. While stories like these are popping up with more and more frequency, this one has a unique twist. Rather than requesting a private gender-neutral restroom facility she can use, the high school student at the center of this story simply wants to shower and change in the girls' locker room with the other girls. The school administration isn't forcing her to use the boys' locker room, but they do want to force her to use a private bathroom. But that's not the way the law works. According to the Washington Post:
"In a statement, the ACLU said that the district could accommodate students’ desire for privacy by allowing any student who feels uncomfortable in the locker room to use a separate room. But the district cannot, under the law, use students’ privacy as a reason to separate transgender students from their peers, the organization said."
In other words, if the trans student was asking for a gender-neutral restroom, then the school would have to accommodate her. But the school cannot force her to use a private restroom if she wishes to be among her peers. This is a super important distinction.
The school probably believes it's being trans-friendly — they allow her to play on girls' teams, they allow her to use the girls' restroom (which has separate stalls), and they are providing her with a private locker room in which to change. But they aren't just offering that locker room — they are mandating that it's the one she uses. Not all trans students want gender-neutral restrooms. Some of them just want to be able to use the restrooms in which they feel comfortable, and those students shouldn't be segregated just because they're not cisgender.
According to The Washington Post:
"Daniel E. Cates, the superintendent of Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Ill., said the district is sensitive to the challenges that transgender students face and has a support team to help them navigate at school. Transgender students are allowed to use restrooms in accordance with their gender identity, because there are private stalls, he said.
But the district will continue barring transgender students from communal locker rooms before and after gym and after-school activities, he wrote in a newsletter to families, to 'ensure a respectful school environment' and 'protect the privacy of all students.'"
A big part of why people express trepidation about trans bodies, like they are in this case, is because we don't give trans bodies visibility at the times when we're learning about cis bodies (or like, ever) while we're growing up. Think about early sex ed: health and body books for kids show pictures of a naked cis boy body and a naked girl cis body, with all their anatomical parts labeled accordingly. We don't go around as cis adults asking each other what genitalia we have, because we asked as curious children, and learned the answer from those books. Most of us felt so curious that we even stripped down and compared body parts amongst one another as children or as adolescents. It's how we gathered information to satisfy our curiosity, and learned that every body is a little different.
But there are no pictures in those books of the various ways a naked trans body can look. And there are at least six examples I can think of off the top of my head we'd need to include next to the cis boy and cis girl for that book to be remotely inclusive of trans identity. When that education is missing while you're learning about cis bodies, the gap in knowledge carries over into adulthood
Until we get more comprehensive trans health and sex education published and taught in schools, inviting trans students who want to change and shower communally to do so is a fantastic way to lend visibility to trans bodies at an early age. Childhood and adolescence is the time when we should be inquisitive about bodies and learning about the different shapes they can take. Would a school force a physically disabled student to change and/or shower separately from the other students just because their body didn't look exactly like everyone else's?
Plenty of trans students figuring out their gender identity feel dysphoric about their bodies, and want to be given privacy and space to sort out those feelings. These students should absolutely have a private restroom facility made available to them. But if a trans student is proud of their body, loves it, or otherwise is open to sharing it with others, then they're offering their peers a huge learning opportunity.
Township High School District 211 isn't just discriminating against or oppressing this one trans student; they're robbing that student's peers of the chance to learn about trans identity at the time when it's most appropriate to do so. If adolescents encounter trans bodies in high school locker rooms, and ask their questions then and there, when everyone is encountering other naked bodies in a communal space for the first time, then there's hope for a future in which we don't make surgery, the transition process, or "so like, how do you have sex?" the main focus (or dehumanizing fascination) of the trans experience.