Transgender issue draws controversy

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 6:23 p.m.

Generations of schoolchildren — nerdy ones, shy ones, fat ones and ones who were simply different — are all too familiar with the gut-wrenching fear that a trip to a school bathroom or locker room can invoke.

They have long represented safe havens for teasers and bullies who find the solitude of a boys or girls restroom as ripe hunting ground in which to stalk their prey.

As a flat-chested teenager who spent a fair amount of time in the locker room, I can assure you that I took my share of teasing when I opted to change behind a curtain rather than out in the open among the girls who were more confident in their body development.

For myself and many others, school bathrooms and locker rooms resulted in five to 10 minutes of humiliation. For others, though, necessary trips into such dreaded venues can be downright terrifying.

I would imagine such is the case for those who are transgender — for a boy who identifies as a girl yet is expected to use the boys bathroom, for example.

On Monday the Maine Human Rights Commission may advise schools to allow transgender students to dress, play sports and choose bathrooms based on the gender they consider themselves to be, rather than the gender they were physically born.

Suffice it to say, it’s a bit controversial.

The commission argues that the proposed “guidance” it will offer Maine schools on the subject is nothing more than its interpretation of the Maine Human Rights Act and does not force schools to enact or follow its “suggestions.”

But many groups, such as the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Principals’ Association, have noted publicly their concerns that schools will be prone to lawsuits if the MHRC guidelines are not adhered to.

They are probably right.

Last summer the commission ruled against the Orono School Department for denying access to the girls bathroom to a biologically male student who identifies as a female. An appeal of that decision is pending in Penobscot County Superior Court.

Last May the commission decided that a transgender woman was discriminated against at a Denny’s restaurant in Auburn when management would not let her use the ladies room until she had sex reassignment surgery.

Opponents argue that such a ruling will open litigation doors not only for transgender students, but also for nontransgender students who are uncomfortable sharing bathrooms and locker rooms with a student who is physically of another sex.

Others argue that allowing it opens the doors for boys, considered by some to be biologically stronger and faster than girls, to claim they are transgender in order to play on girls sports teams.

During a similar debate in Gainesville, Fla., last year, opponents ran a TV ad featuring a little blond girl dashing from a playground into a ladies room. An unseemly-looking man hanging around outside follows her in, as the words “Your City Commission Made This Legal” scrolled across the screen.

Clearly it is a relatively small population of students at the center of this issue, but they are students who deserve to be able to attend school, play sports and use the bathroom in safety and comfort.

Supporters of the proposed guidelines downplay opponents’ fears that allowing transgenders to use the bathrooms of their choice will provide ripe opportunities for hormonal teenage boys to start getting their jollies by peeing in the girls bathrooms.

Chances that your average teenage boy will want to take on a female identity and claim to be female in order to get into the girls restrooms are probably not worth worrying about.

Yet parents of schoolchildren certainly can be expected to be concerned if a biological boy, even if he identifies as a girl, joins their daughter’s sport team and starts showering in the girls locker room — or vice versa.

Bruce Smith, a lawyer with the Maine School Management Association, recently told a Lewiston Sun Journal reporter that most schools dealt with transgender issues on a case-by-case basis, some allowing the students to use the bathroom of their choice and others arranging for transgender students to use private, unisex bathrooms.

Many school leaders agree that schools need the ability and the flexibility to make those decisions on their own.

It’s a complex and emotional issue that will require level heads and open minds from people on both sides. There are issues of safety and human rights all tangled up with logic and potential budgetary issues.

The Human Rights Commission needs to keep that in mind as it hands down its “advice” to schools across the state next week.

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