Transgender Rights in Schools

The following is from the NY Times over spring break.  What do you think?


Dispute on Transgender Rights Unfolds at a Colorado School


FOUNTAIN, Colo. — Coy Mathis was born a boy. But after just a few years, biology succumbed to a more powerful force.

A buzz cut grew into long hair. Jeans gave way to pink dresses. And the child’s big cheeks trembled with tears when anyone referred to Coy as male.

Halfway through kindergarten, after consulting with doctors, Coy’s parents informed their child’s school that Coy identified as a girl and should be treated as one — whether that meant using feminine pronouns to describe her or letting Coy wear her favorite dresses.

“It became really clear that it wasn’t just about liking pink or feminine things,” said Kathryn Mathis, Coy’s mother, recounting how Coy had anxiety attacks when people treated her as a boy. “It was that she was trying so hard to show us that she was a girl.”

In December, however, when Coy, 6, was a few months into the first grade, the Mathises angrily pulled her out of school after being told that she could no longer use the girls’ bathroom but could instead use a gender-neutral restroom.

A letter from a lawyer for the Fountain-Fort Carson school district explained that “as Coy grows older and his male genitals develop along with the rest of his body, at least some parents and students are likely to become uncomfortable with his continued use of the girls’ restroom.”

Now, Coy’s case is at the heart of legal dispute that is likely to test Colorado’s anti-discrimination law, which expanded protections for transgender people in 2008.

The case is unfolding in this small town just south of Colorado Springs, as other states across the country seek to clarify their policies relating to transgender students.

It is an issue that has become more commonplace in recent years as advocacy groups push to ensure that school districts are more attuned to the needs of transgender children.

According to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has filed a complaint with Colorado’s civil rights division on the Mathises’ behalf, 16 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of legal protections for transgender people.

In many instances, those protections extend to schools, where the most mundane rituals like going to the bathroom and using a locker room can be especially traumatic for transgender students.

These days, even in states where no protections exist, school districts have become more amenable to meting out a solution when a dispute arises, said Michael D. Silverman, the group’s executive director.

Mr. Silverman cited a recent Kansas case handled by his group, in which a 10-year-old biologically male student wanted to be known by a female name and dress like a girl. The school, he said, ultimately agreed.

“In most cases, when you’re dealing with children this age, nobody is usually fussing about this sort of thing,” Mr. Silverman said. “The schools are much more willing to work with families to ensure that their child is successfully integrated.”

Nonetheless, conflicts over gender identity are, understandably, sensitive territory for administrators, transgender students and their families.

Last month in Batesville, Miss., a group of high school students protested after a transgender classmate was permitted to wear women’s clothing. The students felt that their classmate was being given preferential treatment given the school district’s gender-specific dress code, according to local news reports.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently issued guidelines on the treatment of transgender students, two years after the legislature passed a law banning discrimination based on gender identity.

The guidelines explain the new law and lay out scenarios that schools might encounter.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that every child has a safe and supportive learning environment,” said Jonathan Considine, a spokesman for the department.

The guidelines point out that deciding how best to handle bathroom access for transgender students can be especially challenging. The department recommended that students be permitted to use bathrooms that conform to the gender they identify with and also suggested that schools create gender-neutral restrooms.

“I have been stunned over the last three years by the explosion of concerns and interest and outreach coming from educational professionals around transgender issues,” said Eliza Byard, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Still, gay and transgender advocates say transgender students, while typically a small minority, are particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment.

In a 2012 study by Dr. Byard’s organization, many elementary school students reported hearing comments from fellow students about how both boys and girls should act and look.

About a third of teachers surveyed said that elementary school students who did not conform to gender norms would feel uncomfortable at their schools.

The Mathis case has drawn particular attention, advocates said, because Coy is so young and the Colorado school district had clashed with her parents over what was best.

In that case, the state’s civil rights division is looking into whether the district violated Colorado law by prohibiting Coy from using the girls’ bathroom.

A lawyer for the district, Kelly Dude, declined to comment. In recent public statements, the school district criticized the Mathises for widely publicizing Coy’s situation while it was under review and said it had acted “reasonably and fairly” in the matter.

In a letter to Mr. Silverman, Mr. Dude wrote that Coy was allowed to wear girls’ clothing to school and was referred to as female, as the Mathises had requested. Though Coy could no longer use the girls’ restroom at her elementary school, Mr. Dude said she still had access to staff bathrooms and a gender-neutral restroom in the school’s “health room.”

Mr. Silverman countered that the school district was, he said, “punishing a little girl for what may or may not happen down the road.”

At the Mathises’ home along a stretch of rolling hills, Coy’s parents said they were still mystified over what prompted the school district to change its mind, especially because school administrators seemed so supportive at first.

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” said Jeremy Mathis, a stocky Marine veteran and Coy’s father, noting that Coy had made plenty of friends and grown noticeably happier since identifying as a girl.

“This is elementary school, and you’re singling out this one kid and saying she has to use a special bathroom?”

In the meantime, Coy and her sister and brother — they are triplets — are being home-schooled. While torn about it, the Mathises said they would not return them to school until Coy is allowed to use the girls’ bathroom again.

In the backyard, Coy played happily with her bike, dirt dusting her face and her pink, sparkly boots. She said she would rather be back in school with her friends but knows why she is not.

“They’re being mean to me,” she said. “And they’re telling me that I’m a boy when I’m really a girl.”

7 responses to “Transgender Rights in Schools”

  1. roryblock1 says :

    I think that Americans should have the freedom to identify as any gender they like. Sex is biological, and gender is expressed. Coy says she’s a girl, then she’s a girl! It’s not right for her school to discriminate against her for identifying one way or another. If identified as a boy and was gay, would she not be allowed in the boys bathroom?

    I can see how the school might think she’s going to disrupt other children. If she were to perhaps show off what she has to the other girls in the bathroom, then yea, it would be weird. But why would she do that? She expresses herself as a girl, she should be treated as one.

  2. BenLev4 says :

    This is a really sticky situation, especially because Coy is so young. If she goes in the girls bathroom, and a girl sees “what she has”, it could be extremely detrimental to both the girl and Coy. Although the only difference between her and the other girls is she has male genitalia, I side with the school.

    Young girls may feel uncomfortable with Coy in the bathroom. It could potentially be scarring if a young girl happened to see Coy’s genitalia. When I say this, it could also be dangerous to Coy. The rumors of Coy’s male genitalia would go through the school. For a girl (Coy) who already deals with bullying, these stories would be terrible.The gender-neutral bathroom is the best option. Not only does it protect other girls, but I also believe it protects Coy.

  3. Liz7 says :

    I think the issue in question here is whether or not gender discrimination as defined in civil rights can apply to a gender that is chosen. If this was an adult instead of an 6 year old, I don’t think this would even be in question. The school’s concern is understandable, but the complaints of a few uncomfortable parents should not impede on the rights of this girl. Girl’s bathrooms have stalls, and the idea that other kindergardeners will see “what she has” is a gross accusation and pretty unlikely. And if Coy is forced to use the boy’s bathroom – it would not only be uncomfortable for her, but all the other boys who have to see someone walk into the bathroom with long hair and a dress. If this Colorado law is trying to protect transgender discrimination, then I think they will absolutely find the school’s actions discriminatory.

  4. Carolyn4 says :

    “Our primary concern is to make sure that every child has a safe and supportive learning environment,” said Jonathan Considine, a spokesman for the MA Department of Education. My question is, are they more concerned for the transgender students learning environment or the straight children? I guess you could make the argument that other students may feel uncomfortable sharing a restroom with a transgender student. But I personally feel the focus of the guidelines should pertain to the environment for the transgender student (who is likely the one feeling more uncomfortable).

  5. Lizzie1 says :

    In a perfect world, Coy and other transgender children would be treated as equal to the gender they intend to be. However, this isn’t a perfect world and it’s a tough decision for the school board to make. Because Coy has not gone through puberty yet, it’s easier for the school to accept her gender change, but as she matures, the differences could be so stark that others would feel uncomfortable. I think because this is a relatively new issue (because there have existed transgender people before, but they haven’t been as open about it), we will continue to develop as a society and accept it more. But for now, since the school board has never really had to deal with this before, it’ll be hard for Coy and other transgender children.

  6. nicoleb7 says :

    This is a pretty unique case because usually this is not an issue with children so young. Although I think she should have equal rights and not be discriminated against just because she was born a man. I can understand why the school feels a need to protect the other children before Coy. If she walks into the bathroom and other children see anything there will probably be consequence for both Coy and the other children and it is the schools responsibility to avoid that. However, like Liz said if she is forced to use the boy’s bathroom that will be embarrassing for her! It is obviously very complicated but I think the school is handling it correctly.

  7. Nick4 says :

    As the article said, it’s very rare that people identify as transgender at such a young age, so this issue is a new one. However, in my opinion, it’s unfair for the school to treat Coy as a boy if she identifies as a girl. A solution of using a gender neutral bathroom isn’t logical, since it’s singling out Coy specifically. Honestly, I think people need to just get over this issue of being ‘uncomfortable’. Should there be bathrooms for just lesbians because other girls feel uncomfortable? I think the main issue with this is that a lot people view transgender rights as something separate from gay rights, when in actuality the two should be treated the same. If the school singles out Coy by making her use a specific bathroom, it will be detrimental to her confidence as well as how she views herself for the rest of her life.

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