Education Desk: Should Locker Room Assignment Rest On Identity Or Anatomy?

Apr 4, 2016

State Representatives Thomas Morrison (left) (R-Palatine) and Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) have opposing views on how locker rooms should be assigned.

In some Illinois school districts, transgender students are allowed to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, rather than their anatomy. But an Illinois lawmaker wants to change that.

In official documents, she's called Student A. She was still in 8th grade when her family contacted the neighborhood high school to work out which pronoun teachers would refer to her by, and which bathrooms she would use. Student A was born male, but identified as female from a young age.

  The bathrooms -- no problem, she could use the girls room. But when it came to the lockers rooms, officials in Palatine District 211 said no. For PE and her athletic teams, she had to change clothes in a separate place. In 2013, she filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education, and in December, the school resolved the issue by installing five privacy stalls in each locker room.

"That settlement was not considered an appropriate compromise by the majority of constituents in my state rep district," says Tom Morrison, a Republican from Palatine. He filed a bill that would require students statewide to use the facilities that match their birth certificates.

"Because what I found out was ... there were many other school districts that were either openly or quietly discussing this issue or putting policies into effect with or without community involvement."

His legislation would not only ban Student A from the girls' locker room; it would also require her to use the boys' bathroom, or a special single-occupant bathroom.

"You know, it's like a solution in search of a problem," says State Representative Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat from Chicago. She’s one of the few openly gay Illinois legislators. Morrison called her in December, hoping for her support. But ... no deal.

"He's ignoring the reality that a huge number of school districts around the state deal with this every day without incident,” she says. “He's really pandering, frankly."

The DOE's Office of Civil Rights sent investigators to Palatine and documented the complex daily routine Student A used to avoid changing clothes near girls. Over the course of two years, she had  entered a girls' locker room four times -- to confer with teammates, to stash her bag, to rent a PE uniform, and to dry her hair. A handful of girls and one parent had complained that they felt uncomfortable sharing a locker room with Student A. Morrison, however, claims something more.

"Anecdotally,” he says, “I heard that when the student was a freshman, the student went into the female locker room and started to undress. And one of the female students was quite alarmed to see a student undressing beside her, and the student has male anatomy."

"This story is completely specious," says Ed Yohnka, who is with the American Civil Liberties Union. "We represented Student A in her complaint."

Yohnka says Morrison's allegation about Student A was made only after the investigation concluded. He says school officials denied it, but he wanted to make sure.

"I had to go to Student A and ask her the question. That's what, that's how I know that it didn't need happen. And ...  I don't really like making teenage girls cry."

Morrison is aware of the special challenges faced by transgender children. He's met with parents of transgender children and with a transgender constituent. But, he says, there's another perspective to consider:

"I have had other constituents reach out to me and say, 'My daughter was a victim of sexual abuse. Her abuser was a man. The notion that another student with the same means of abuse would be in the immediate proximity of my daughter while she's changing creates flashbacks. And what about her needs?' "

Cassidy says Morrison is using extreme examples to scapegoat transgender youth.

"It's mind-boggling the lengths to which some people will go to pick on folks they perceive to be weaker than them, in order to get some traction,” she says. “I mean, these are kids trying to get through school. Let them be."

Meanwhile, another measure would make it easier for transgender people to legally change the sex designation on their birth certificates.