Bathrooms have become a battleground for transgender kids

the new battleground.
the new battleground.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As the US begins to recognize the transgender community, and as some transgender youth feel more comfortable coming out at younger ages, the battleground for rights is shifting—from adult venues, like workplaces, to schools. One of the most basic places the conflict often unfolds on school grounds: the bathroom.

In 2013, a Portland high school added unisex bathrooms, and Colorado transgender child Coy Mathis won the right to use the girls’ bathroom; last year a teen in Maine won not only the right to use the students’ girls bathroom instead of a separate staff bathroom that the school required her to use, but also a $75,000 settlement.

It’s hard to get an accurate estimate of the number of transgender youth and adults in the US, says Gary Gates, a research director at UCLA Law School’s LGBT research center, the Williams Institute. By his estimate, about .3% of the US adult population (pdf, p. 3) identify as transgender. Recent surveys of transgender youth produce higher numbers, ranging from 1.3% of middle school children in San Francisco to around 2.25% of youth and young adults (pdf, p. 3). This suggests that transgender young people today may be more likely to come out than in the past.

With all this progress and recognition, though, comes the inevitable backlash. Lawmakers in at least three states—Nevada, Kentucky, Minnesota—have proposed bills that would restrict transgender students’ access to bathrooms. Other states, like Florida and Texas, have proposed bills that would apply to transgender adults. The lawmakers backing these bills argue that allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with might also open the door to people pretending to be trans and peeping on women, though there is no evidence of this happening.

Some states (pdf, p. 4), like California, actively protect the rights of transgender students. And even the schools without state laws fall under the protection of federal law, as long as they receive some federal funds (which most do). Last year the Department of Education said that gender discrimination laws extend to transgender students as well.

Some activists are going so far as to call the backlash a victory for the transgender community, because it means they are being recognized enough in society to prompt the negative reaction, similar to what the lesbian and gay community once experienced (and still experiences in many places).

In a blog post last week, National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Mara Keisling made the point that while the hate is discouraging, it’s almost legally meaningless because of the existing legislation that protects transgender people.

We’re going to win. These anti-trans bills are happening because we’re winning, not because we’re losing. City councils, school districts, businesses, courts, federal officials—more and more of them are lining up on our side, recognizing that transgender people cannot be equal members of society unless we have the right to live our lives as who we really are. More and more, the media are telling accurate and sympathetic stories about our lives. That kind of progress always brings out a backlash.

This is an issue that extends beyond US borders. In 2013, a Stockholm school built a gender neutral changing room, and a province in Canada will add gender neutral bathrooms to new school buildings. At the national level, though, Canadian lawmakers can’t agree on a bill protecting the rights of transgender citizens—including equal access to bathrooms.