Talking About Trans Folks and Bathrooms


Talking About Trans

Folks and Bathrooms

by Sara Schmidt-Kost

I’m a middle school teacher who’s been tasked with educating my fellow teachers and admins about trans bathroom rights. My problem is that most people think that if any kid is allowed to use any bathroom, they’ll abuse the privilege. How do you combat this?
— Anonymous

Sara Says:

You’ve been given a huge task. Depending on the state in which you are located, the laws on bathrooms vary. Some state laws are more welcoming and inclusive than others. Many other discriminatory state laws have been and will be challenged in the courts. Nationwide, however, the Department of Education and Department of Justice, under the direction of President Obama, issued a directive to schools this past spring detailing how schools should protect the civil rights of transgender students.

The letter clearly states that “A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity. A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so. A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.” All of this is to say that you definitely have a legal basis for advocating for trans bathroom rights at your school.

As far as educating your fellow teachers and administrators, I think the approach you should take depends on how open and supportive your school is of LGBTQIA students thus far, and also how many out trans students you currently have. Your colleagues’ fears about bathrooms are common, if misguided. We’ve seen many problems arise because of these bathroom fears, from controversy at Target to threats against gender-nonconforming individuals who are misgendered and believed to be in the “wrong” bathroom. Addressing and alleviating those fears will help your colleagues be more caring educators for your transgender students.

Let your colleagues know that transgender bathroom policies are important protections for transgender and gender-nonconforming students. According to the Department of Education, schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, including transgender students. Allowing transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity does not mean that any kid is allowed to use any bathroom they want. The vast majority of students in your school will not need to change what bathroom they use. We are talking about a very small number of students that these protections will affect. For the most part, other students won’t know about the new directive from the Department of Education, and will have no need to use a different bathroom.

Furthermore, the students who will face the most harassment regarding bathrooms are the transgender or gender-nonconforming students themselves. The concerns of the school staff should not be how they can keep any student from using any bathroom, but how they can make their trans students feel the safest and most supported while they are in their care.

Addressing this concern for trans students’ safety starts by having conversations with trans or gender-nonconforming students in the school. Privately, and with great care, you and the admin team can talk with the student and their family about their thoughts and fears. Bathrooms can be a great fear for trans and gender-nonconforming students. While trans students have every right to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity, they may still not want to use that bathroom out of fears of harassment and violence. Those fears are understandable, and schools can easily work around those fears by allowing trans students to use single-stall, lockable bathrooms. Usually those are staff bathrooms or bathrooms located in the main office or nurse's office. The school can allow the student to have a bathroom key, or have a few trusted adults they can go to for access to those bathrooms.

Starting this conversation with colleagues can be tough and awkward. People often don’t want to talk about bathrooms or about trans people. If your plan is to talk to your entire staff, you could create a slideshow presentation to help you. Your slides could include definitions (like gender vs. assigned sex), and explanations of what it means to be transgender and bathroom policies. Having a slideshow can help you organize your thoughts on the presentation and give your colleagues concrete definitions and examples to learn from.

Again, your school’s priority should be protecting your transgender students. Whether that means allowing them to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity or using a lockable, single-stall bathroom, their needs are most important. Trans students will have so many things to worry about in their young lives, and using the bathroom at school should never be one of those things.

Sara Schmidt-Kost is an out, queer Educator in Minneapolis, MN. She spent five years as a leader in the LGBT student organizations at St. Cloud State University where she completed her undergrad in Secondary Social Studies Education. Sara currently leads the after-school GSA at the high school where she works, and she is thankful for the opportunity to support her students as they grow into fully-functioning adults. She has also created a training workshop on LGBT Issues in Schools and has presented it to groups of Social Studies teachers, other educators, and students alike.

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