In a time when the Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era guidelines protecting transgender students and state and local legislators are considering so-called bathroom bills despite the negative economic impact in North Carolina over HB2, it is not a time for transgender advocates to maintain a hard line on locker room access for transgender students. These advocates are equating locker room access with bathroom access when these two issues are very, very different. Bathrooms, despite being places where people perform private functions, are by design places that maximise privacy. Despite the proximity of a bathroom’s occupants, those occupants need never witness the nakedness of others or expose their own. Whilst moving through the bathroom’s common areas, the occupants are fully clothed. Most locker rooms, on the other hand, are designed in such a way that it is impossible not to expose one’s nakedness or witness that of others. The debate over transgender access to locker rooms has played out chiefly as it pertains to schools. Youth opposed to transgender access have two very valid objections to allowing transgdender students unfettered access to bathrooms. Firstly, irrespective of whether a transgender student is given a private area to change clothes, that transgender student has full access to the common areas of the locker room and is therefore able to witness the nakedness of all the other occupants. Secondly, in situations where a transgender student is not provided a separate changing area, the cisgender occupants are forced to witness the nakedness of the transgender student. Adolescence is a very sensitive time for many youth and it is not at all uncommon for people with rapidly developing bodies to be very self-conscious about those bodies. It is not unreasonable for these students to desire privacy and to not be exposed to others who might make them uncomfortable. Transgender activists argue that transgender students feel isolated and excluded when compelled to change in facilities separate from those of other students but prescribe the very same solution for students who are uncomfortable disrobing in the presence of a transgender student. This is very, very wrong and insisting on full transgender access whilst ignoring or belittling the legitimate claims of cisgender students risks a backlash that could easily sour public opinion towards other transgender rights as well.
In the latest case, student Joel Doe, a cisgender boy in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, has filed suit against the school district to reverse its policy of allowing transgender students unfettered access to the locker rooms of the gender with which they identify. Doe has stated that he felt uncomfortable when he witnessed a transgender student walking around the locker room in shorts and a bra. The response of the district to Doe’s concerns is troubling. Dr. Brett Cooper, the principal of Boyertown High School, offered the uncomfortable cisgender student the opportunity to change in the nurse’s office. Dr. Richard Faidley, the Boyertown School District superintendent, told Doe that if he was uncomfortable, he could be home-schooled and attend classes at a vocational center. In essence, the school’s response to the student’s discomfort has been to offer solutions that isolate and exclude him as well as damaging his educational prospects. The response of transgender advocates was no less troubling. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, also proposed isolating and excluding the cisgender complainant by saying that he could have been allowed to use single occupancy or staff facilities. If the goal of integrating transgender students by allowing them full access to locker rooms is to prevent transgender students from feeling isolated and excluded, how is it right to impose similar isolation and exclusion upon cisgender students who find themselves uncomfortable in the naked presence of somebody who is anatomically different from them? Punishing cisgender students who are uncomfortable in the presence of anatomically different transgender students is patently ludicrous. School officials and transgender advocates who propose solutions like this should be ashamed of themselves for attempting to transfer the stigma from the transgender person to faultless cisgender persons.
Last year, cisgender girl Sigourney Coyle began sitting out her gym class after her the Obama administration issued guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students unfettered access to bathrooms and locker rooms. In her case, just like in Boyertown, the gym classes are mandatory. She is uncomfortable undressing and being seen naked in the presence of somebody who is anatomically different. One may discount her objections because she has said her objections have a basis in her religious beliefs, but there are plenty of non-religious cisgender students who are similarly uncomfortable. In her testimony before the school board, Miss Coyle said “I also feel nothing against transgenders [sic]. I know some and I don’t have anything wrong with them. I would just not like their rights to overrule my own. We are equals. They are not better and I am not better.” She also testified that the school had offered to let her take gym class in the summer in order to accommodate her. Later, her mother made it clear that their objection was only to transgender access to areas where Sigourney could be seen naked and that they had no objection to sharing bathrooms because the stalls provide a modicum of privacy. Miss Coyle’s concerns are valid. In the rush to accommodate transgender students by providing them with unfettered locker room access, many schools have provided the transgender students with more private areas to conceal their anatomical differences, but often have not offered the same level of privacy to cisgender students. The transgender student can emerge fully dressed from the private area but the cisgender students are still exposed and can be viewed in their nakedness by the transgender student.
It boggles my mind that theses concerns are not taken more seriously by school officials and transgender advocates alike. The fact of the matter is that it is often difficult for adolescent cisgender students to appear naked before other cisgender students. Students who develop early, students who develop late and many students who have body image or self-esteem issues dread the collective disrobing and showering that comes along with gym classes. In high school, I dreaded physical education classes. My physical development and appearance were completely normal. My body did not stand out in any way from that of the other boys in my gym class, but I already suffered from an immense level of bullying and I often ended up in gym class with my chief antagonists who used every opportunity to ridicule my appearance and demean me. Any rational person would have been able to tell me that their words were not true, that my body was completely normal and without defect, but rational arguments were of no use to me. I was already vulnerable, I already had low self-esteem, I already felt like an outcast. The daily agony of the locker room simply exacerbated all of these feelings. I reached the point where I simply stopped showering after gym class, choosing instead to change as quickly as possible into my street clothes and flee the locker room. Returning to the classroom sweaty and dirty was preferable to subjecting myself to the cruelty of bullies.
No student, transgender or cisgender, deserves to be forced into a situation where he or she feels uncomfortable. The locker room is already an uncomfortable place for students without adding the additional strain of forcing them to disrobe in the presence of people who are anatomically different. The only equitable solution is to provide all students with a private area to change and shower. No student should be forced to use a gang locker room or a gang shower. If every student has access to a private changing and showering area, no student is singled out, isolated or excluded and no student has to be seen naked by any other student.