Panel defers on transgender rules for schools

Posted March 01, 2010, at 10:03 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 08, 2010, at 6 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After a contentious meeting Monday that drew angry outbursts from the crowd, the Maine Human Rights Commission postponed deciding whether to give advice to schools about how to accommodate transgender students.

The commission decided 4-1 against taking action on proposed guidelines so that it can get more public comment.

About 50 people crowded a conference room at the Senator Inn in Augusta for the public meeting, during which they were not allowed to speak. But some attendees spoke nonetheless — loudly — before storming out of the room. A police officer circled the crowd, ready to escort the speakers out of the hotel.

The crowd seemed evenly split between supporters and opponents of transgender accommodations in schools.

The discussion revolved around a document the commission created called “Sexual Orientation in Schools and Colleges,” a guide for schools to address accommodating transgender students.

The guide recommends schools allow transgender students to use the bathrooms, play on the sports teams and follow the dress codes of the gender they identify with.

The guide was developed to help schools follow the Maine Human Rights Act with the intention of avoiding more situations like one that occurred last summer in which the commission ruled against the Orono School Department after it denied access to the girls bathroom to a biologically male student who identifies as female. A review of that decision is pending in Penobscot County Superior Court.

Commissioner Joseph Perry said Monday that although taking public comment would make the process significantly longer, he thinks it is the right thing to do.

The commission has asked select groups of stakeholders for comment but has not yet accepted public commentary on the matter.

Rev. Bob Celeste of Harrison attended Monday’s meeting and was frustrated that he could not speak.

“They don’t care what we have to say,” Celeste said. “They don’t care about most of the kids. All they’re interested in doing is using anything as a guise to introduce the children of Maine to the homosexual lifestyle.”

Robin Rasala, a transgender woman who attended Monday’s meeting, thought the outcome was positive.

“The one thing that concerns me is the lack of information the commission has about transgender people,” she said.

Rasala, who knew she was transgender at the age of 10, said her time in schools would have been much easier had the school accommodated her.

“I had to hide everything,” she said.

Of the five commissioners, Kenneth Fredette of Newport was the only one to vote against holding a public hearing — but not because he doesn’t want commentary.

“I didn’t think it was right for five unelected people on a commission to issue advice to public schools on human rights,” Fredette said after the meeting. “We don’t have the authority to do that.”

The commission’s lawyer, John Gause, said the commission does have the authority.

Zachary Heiden, legal director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said Monday that the original ruling was entirely reasonable.

“This is a commission that exists to protect the human rights of the people of Maine,” he said. “Maine law protects people from discrimination based on gender identity and expression. Allowing people who are transgender to use the bathroom — which is a basic human need — is entirely consistent with basic human rights as well as Maine law.”

But holding a public hearing could be educational, Heiden said.

“There’s a great deal of misinformation about what it means to be transgender,” he said.

Fredette said he condemns discrimination, but he is concerned the commission isn’t evenly balancing rights.

“What concerns me is that I have a 15-year-old daughter who attends public schools, I have an 11-year-old son who attends public schools,” he said. “What is the affect on my daughter when a 15-year-old boy comes into the girls bathroom?”

Commissioner A. Mavourneen Thompson, who made the motion to have a public hearing, said that when a time, date and location are decided it will be well-publicized.

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