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Title IX to the Rescue!

When the authors of the Title IX prohibition of gender discrimination in public schools wrote that historic piece of legislation, they were probably not thinking about transgender equality. But it has become an important tool in the ever-growing effort to achieve equal rights for transgender students all across the country. A major example is the recently settled case against District 211 High School in Palatine, Illinois. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found the school in violation of Title IX for refusing to allow a transgender girl to use the girls’ locker room, even though she plays on a girls’ athletic team. Requiring her to use separate facilities was not considered equal treatment.

Cases like this have been coming up with increasing frequency, as parents of transgender children find that schools are where they face some of the strongest discrimination. Probably the most common and troublesome issues are about bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams. But other issues that need to be addressed include preferred names, preferred pronouns, and dress codes. And beneath all of the specifics lies the huge substratum of prejudice, harassment, and ostracism. It’s not easy being trans. We upset most people’s idea of the natural order of things.

So what are school administrators to do? To me, the general principle is easy. Treat trans girls and boys the same way you treat other girls and boys. But the devil, of course, is in the details. The bathroom issue is huge, and it is a problem not only in schools but also in the workplace and just about everywhere. We are conditioned from a very early age to think it is terrible for a boy to go into a girls’ bathroom or vice versa. Part of the fear, of course, is of violence to females. But there is also just the basic concern for privacy. That one is more emotional than logical. In reality, girls’ rooms have only separate stalls, and boys’ rooms have them too, for anyone who wants one.

The locker room question is a little trickier, since nudity is involved. Most trans students in high school have not had sex reassignment surgery, so they still have the same genitals they were born with. It is understandable that parents and school administrators tend to be nervous about that, but the problem can be solved by providing separate shower stalls and curtained-off changing areas for all students. Access to sports teams can be even more complicated, because athletic competition may be regulated by state athletic associations. But individual schools should still treat all girls the same and all boys the same, transgender or not.

The toughest part of ensuring equal treatment for transgender students will probably come down to the attitudes of both staff and other students. As with gays, rules and regulations can go only so far.

To be clear about it, what is ultimately needed is a fundamental shift in our society’s understanding of gender. Until quite recently, almost everyone thought of gender a s synonymous with biological sex. That attitude is just beginning to change. Schools that try to treat transgender girls the same as genetic girls and transgender boys the same as genetic boys, whether willingly or under legal mandate, often face angry opposition from other parents and the community. The best they can do is strive for the greatest equality possible, always putting the well being of the child or teenager above politics and convention.

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