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In Many School Districts, Transgender Bathroom Access Is The Norm


Public schools must reach students equally regardless of gender identity, according to a new directive by the Obama administration. The national guidance issued Friday is a response to a new North Carolina law requiring, among other things, that transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms in line with the genders that are listed on their birth certificates. We have reaction from three parts of the United States. First, San Francisco and NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Shannon Minter is a San Francisco attorney who's prominent in the legal fight for LGBT rights. He was born a female 55 years ago, but at the age of 35, he realized that he's a transgender man. Minter says he was stunned by the announcement from the Obama administration extending civil rights protections to transgender students.

SHANNON MINTER: It's monumental. I mean, this is profound.

GONZALES: Minter says perhaps people are coming to understand the trauma involved when one's birth sex doesn't correspond to one's gender identity and that it extends to something as simple as going to the bathroom.

MINTER: And that is a hard thing for adults to withstand and navigate. It is overwhelming for young people.

GONZALES: That fear was recognized long ago in San Francisco schools. The district has established a number of transgender-friendly policies over the past dozen years. At Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, the news of the government's directive was greeted with a sense that the rest of the country is catching up, says social studies teacher Morgan Wallace.

MORGAN WALLACE: Most students in San Francisco are so used to hearing about this and talking about it that the norm is to be open and tolerant and accepting. And so anything that's not that is kind of an aberration.

GONZALES: This year, students at Lincoln High petitioned for a gender-neutral bathroom. Penelope Kim (ph) is a senior who supported that campaign.

PENELOPE KIM: And we're a really small, thriving community of people who care. And if you let those people who are minorities and who don't feel like they fit in have a chance to fit in, you'll give people so much freedom and happiness.

GONZALES: But access to bathrooms is the least important thing, says Kevin Gogin. He's director of safety and wellness for the district's health programs.

KEVIN GOGIN: I think what's more important is that we want our students and our families to know that they're welcome in our schools and that the teacher in the front of the room is going to give the same attention to the transgender student as any other student. That's what's important.

GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City, Kan., where the school district also works hard to be welcoming to all types of students.


MORRIS: High school graduation in Kansas City, Kan., last night was a parade of cultures. This is a diverse, low-income district, and parents, like Ron Ross (ph), Patty Longaker (ph) and Ariel Langer (ph) cover a wide spectrum of views on transgender bathroom policy.

RON ROSS: And to me, it's torture for somebody to be one way and then you try to force them to be another way to do something. I mean, that's discrimination if you ask me.

PATTY LONGAKER: Predators are going to go into bathrooms with your little girl.

ARIEL LANGER: They're already in the bathrooms with your son.

MORRIS: Like North Carolina, Kansas has grappled with this issue politically. Lawmakers considered a punitive bathroom bill this year and the state health department is moving to make it almost impossible for transgender people to update their birth certificates - wrongheaded by grandmother Kathy Baron's (ph) standards.

KATHY BARON: If they're dressed like a man, then they should go as a man. If they're dressed like a woman they should go in as woman, and I don't think we should make such a big deal out of it.

JOHN LONGAKER: But I don't think that it should be dictated from the federal government what the schools do. I think that the schools need more local control.

MORRIS: It may come as news to John Longaker (ph) here, but this district has been working discreetly with transgender students for years, according to spokesman David Smith.

DAVID SMITH: This is not because the White House issued a directive today. It's not new for us at all. It doesn't change anything. It doesn't.

MORRIS: Smith says that safety is a priority here and that allowing students to use the facilities that match their gender identity helps them to feel secure.

SMITH: This is an issue that school districts across this region, across the state and across the country are dealing with and have been managing for quite some time.

MORRIS: And Smith frets (ph) that a politicized debate over school bathroom policy for transgender students could upend some of the work districts have done quietly to address the issue. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: I'm Debbie Elliott in Baldwin County, Ala. State school board member Matthew Brown says the Obama administration has no business changing the interpretation of federal civil rights law to include transgender students.

MATTHEW BROWN: The language is very clear. It refers to one sex and the other sex. There's only one way to interpret that, the two biological sexes.

ELLIOTT: He says it would be up to Congress to change the law to include gender identity, but he doesn't think that's a good idea. Earlier this week, Brown introduced a student privacy resolution.

BROWN: And it would just require that students participate in sports and utilize school facilities that correspond with their biological sex as recorded on their birth certificate.

ELLIOTT: Other Republican-elected officials in the South are sounding a defiant tone. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson calls the directive social engineering. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says that state won't go along, despite the federal threat to withhold school funding. And Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant calls it, quote, "the most outrageous example yet of the Obama administration forcing its liberal agenda on states that roundly reject it.

In north Georgia, hundreds of parents protested at the Fannin County school board over the possibility of transgender students being permitted to use restrooms based on their gender identity and threatened to take their kids out of public schools. But not all parents see the new rules as a threat.

MITSY CALLOWAY: It's no big deal.

ELLIOTT: Mitsy Calloway (ph) has a daughter at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. She says transgender students need protections against discrimination.

CALLOWAY: Because they're such targets for the bullies. We don't really need to fear the targets. We need to fear the bullies.

ELLIOTT: While the Obama administration's guidance is not legally binding, states and schools that don't comply could be subject to civil rights lawsuits, setting up legal battles like the one started this week between the Justice Department and the state of North Carolina. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
Frank Morris
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