View From Glen Hill: Transgender in America

One of my faithful column readers asked me to address the subject of transgender school accommodations. Wow! I think the word “transgender” had not even been created when I was a school-aged kid.

The federal rules recently announced reflect a practice already is use in multiple school districts, including our own here in Wilton. They apply only to someone who, though of one gender biologically, consistently presents himself or herself as of the other gender in dress and otherwise. So, this route does not sound like a remotely likely one for a student voyeur to take, to say the least. The key determinant of transgenderedness in the federal rule is how the person designates and presents himself or herself, not the presence or absence of one gender’s genitals.

The mass murder in Orlando has really changed this discussion by illustrating the extent to which hatred directed on the basis of sexual-orientation and gender issues can provoke extreme violence. In fact, the whole subject of transgenderedness has taken on an entirely different dimension in recent years as more about it has reached public awareness. According to Time Magazine, only 0.5% of our population is transgender. Transgender self-designation by a child or youth is something surely accompanied by much parental and school evaluation with appropriate professionals to determine the foundation for this belief about self and the best way forward as a result; so the designation decision is not likely to have been undertaken lightly.

In fact, the stories that have emerged of kids being physically threatened and abused by peers and others to the point of feeling completely isolated and even suicidal once they have disclosed their transgenderness indicate not only that this is both a gut-wrenching self-designation but also that it is one that no one would undertake if the need were not pressing. A recent partially autobiographical novel by trans person Meredith Russo entitled If I Was Your Girl drives this very point home graphically, and the cable television series I am Jazz makes the same point from an even younger youth’s perspective.  

Given the prevalence of separate stalls in girls’ and women’s bathrooms, there is a degree of privacy there that seems to make the bathroom issue less pressing by far for girls and women than is the showering and dressing issue where the privacy and genuine-discomfort issues seem very real.  However, if one believes that the transgenderness requires legally mandated equality, “separate but equal” is generally unacceptable given especially its notorious history as applied to African Americans culminating in Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s and the public accommodations (including bathrooms) provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.   

The acceptance of gays over time has become so widespread now that the new Secretary of the Army is an openly gay man and multiple business executives and political leaders are openly gay. In fact, gay marriage that was such a lightning-rod issue not so long ago seems to have reached a tipping point over the past several years as many states, especially in this region of the country, have acted and the U.S. Supreme Court then affirmed that already widespread trend. This public transformation happened over a three-decade-plus process because people came to know gay friends, neighbors, and co-workers as people of goodwill and good heart whom they valued, including their own family members. As the pendulum swung, a consensus emerged.

The concept of transgenderedness is sufficiently new as publicly recognized that that kind of consensus has not yet had a chance to emerge. It’s very understandable that once the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division determined that trans people fall under the protections of our civil rights laws (even though the applicable statutes were enacted before the term “transgender” was even in use), the Division would swing into action. The attorney general has certainly expressed with passion and eloquence her view on the need for recognition of trans people’s rights.    

Where I think the line should be drawn is on showering and changing facilities where rights of privacy seem to me to transcend other civil rights.  Whether that line can be drawn in the law as it currently exists, or whether those laws even apply, will be addressed in our courts. But wouldn’t it be great if we could find ways to protect and acknowledge the humanity of trans people even as we protect the legitimate privacy concerns of others?  We are an ingenious and adaptable people who find remarkable ways forward when we set our minds, and especially our hearts, on that objective.