How schools are coping with transgender students

By Kari Reinhardt on March 30, 2015

 

I’m an eternal “Girly Girl”. I’ve always had a penchant for pinks, purples and perfume. Unless a midnight tsunami hits our house, you’ll never see me in public without make-up on.

Grade 8 student Tracey Wilson is kind of like that, too. She has cascading curls and distinctly feminine interests. She loves dolls, glam high heels and dancing. However, she was banned from the girl’s bathroom at her former elementary school in Delta, B.C.

Why? Because unlike me, Tracey was born a boy. Her outward appearance as a girl wasn’t enough to sway school staff, who denied Tracey’s chosen gender. Tracey (who used to be named Trey) was instructed to wear a boy’s uniform and use the washroom designated for disabled people.

In this inclusive era, the school’s transgender solution seems heartless. Many Canadian schools strive to accommodate transgender students and single-person washrooms are seen as a viable option for transgender kids. Yet for Tracey, using the disabled washroom made her feel even more isolated.

“I felt like a freak because I was separated from everyone else,” Tracey says.

Her mom, Michelle Wilson, understood Tracey’s feelings. “ For girls, bathrooms aren’t just for peeing; they’re social places, too. They’re great private areas to chat, joke or do your hair.”

Luckily the principal at Tracey’s new school in Ladner B.C. “gets” her unique needs. She invited trans-educators to the school to facilitate Tracey’s transition to the new school and dispel transphobia amongst students and staff.

“I use the girls’ bathroom now and the kids are way nicer to me,” Tracey says.

Tracey hopes to use the girl’s restroom when she begins high school next year. Arguments against open washrooms from typically self-conscious teens and wary parents can get particularly ugly at high schools.

Opposition to open washrooms was so volatile at a high school in Milford Station, N.S. in 2013, that transgender teen Jessica Durling faced permanent suspension if she used the girl’s bathroom. While the school’s punishment was immediately overturned by the local school board, Jessica was still ridiculed by peers, staff and parents.

Resistance to open washrooms has also been voiced by some politicians, like Ontario Conservative MP Dean Allison. During a debate on the “Bathroom Bill” in 2012, Dean said, “Sexual predators (may have) a legal defense to charges of being caught in a women’s washroom or locker room.”

Worries about open washrooms are based on ignorance, entitlement and fear, according to Ken Jeffers, coordinator of the gender-based violence prevention department, at the Toronto District School Board.

“If students are peeping or groping in your school washrooms, you have safety issues – not transgender issues,” Ken says.

Sheena Jamieson, work services coordinator at The Youth Project in Halifax, agrees.

“No reported violent incidents in Canadian washrooms ever involved transgender people,” she says. “Transgender people just want privacy when attending to a biological need.”

Soon every transgender person may be legally entitled to use their chosen lavatory. Nova Scotia and Ontario recently amended their human rights codes to expand gender expression rights. Michelle believes other provinces will follow suit and transgender rights will advance as have other social causes.

Michelle stands by her daughter, who was, to quote Lady Gaga, simply born this way. “I’ll never judge her by what’s between her legs!”

Tracey laughs at this comment and says, “Just let us sparkle. Let us be.”

A better way for transgender teens to go

Recent tabloids depict a reality TV star making his (alleged) transition from man to woman. Do these images make you uncomfortable?

If so, it doesn’t mean your transphobic. It takes time for some people to accept new social norms and forms of expression.

Similarly, it’s natural for some teens who feel secretive about their developing bodies and some parents who perhaps never heard the term transgender growing up, to be nervous over shared restrooms.

If your school is switching up its bathroom rules, become informed about key components of successful, inclusive bathroom policies; especially if your own child is transgender.

Minority usually rules

“We deal with every bathroom accommodation request separately,” says Toronto District School Board gender expert Ken Jeffers. “Ultimately we go with the transgender student’s bathroom choice (not the general school population’s preference).”

Carefully explain new rules

Ken often enlists trans-educators when a new restroom plan is implemented to enlighten staff, students and parents about transgender rights.

“Many myths are dispelled after transgender needs are explained to fearful people,” says LGBT youth worker Sheena Jamieson. “Knowledge often leads to acceptance.”

The new rules rule

“We’re very (consultative) but everyone must follow the updated guidelines,” says Ken. “If people don’t like it then perhaps they’ll need to find another school.” 

 

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2015.


By Kari Reinhardt| March 30, 2015

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