Two months ago, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill banning transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that don’t match the sex on their birth certificates. The bill resulted in numerous protests and lawsuits. Even before this discussion re-entered the national discourse, the Michigan State Board of Education was considering providing schools with formal but non-binding guidelines for a safe and supportive learning environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) students. These guidelines suggest that schools allow students to choose their own gender, name, pronouns and bathrooms without the input of parents, doctors or the school. The Board of Education’s guidelines call for equal treatment for transgender students while suggesting that only the student can determine his or her gender identity.
In response to the Board of Education’s guidelines, Michigan state Sen. Tom Casperson (R–Escanaba) announced his plans for a bill that requires students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their “birth” sex. If the student has written consent from a parent or guardian, he or she may use an alternative single-occupancy restroom or a staff member’s bathroom, according to Casperson’s proposed bill. This has stunted the progress to get the State Board of Education’s protective and inclusive guidelines for transgender students formalized, even after a public comment period ended last week. Such a maneuver is an obstacle to Michigan’s inclusivity, and we stand opposed to all actions taken to obstruct these inclusive guidelines’ approval.
While the nation may currently be obsessed with a debate over restrooms, these guidelines barely discuss them. Most of the document is dedicated to suggestions for improving transgender inclusivity through recommendations concerning names, pronouns, sports and dress codes in Michigan public schools. Near the end, in a small section titled “Restrooms,” the State Board of Education provides two alternative options for resolving the “bathroom” conflict. The guidelines essentially state that, in an ideal scenario, students should be allowed to use a restroom that corresponds to their gender identity — regardless of whether or not it corresponds with what’s on their birth certificate —, and, if the student requests, they can gain access to a gender neutral restroom or staff member’s restroom.
The paragraph for “Locker Rooms or Changing Facilities,” however, does not recommend for full inclusivity in locker rooms. Instead, the guidelines recommend the student use an adjusted changing schedule or a private area (in the facility or nearby). These kinds of alternatives may result in the student feeling stigmatized and excluded. Such was the case in Illinois, where the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights ruled that Chicago’s Township High School District 211 violated a a transgender teen’s rights in requiring her to use a separate designated area instead of the girls’ locker room.
Beyond the isolation of transgender students is another problematic aspect of the State Board of Education’s guidelines: the recommendation of discretion in locker room usage “determined on a case-by-case basis.” Claiming that these decisions on inclusivity are subject to a case-by-case discretion gives cover for discriminatory, bigoted policy that doesn’t have the interest of affected students at heart.
Furthermore, while the current political environment may be toxic to radical change, we hope that one day the state will turn the State Board of Education’s proposed guidelines for transgender inclusivity into truly enforceable action. Only then will we have a positive learning environment for all LGBTQ students of all ages in our state.