A child raises a hand in the classroom and asks to go to the bathroom. The teacher excuses the student, who goes into the hall, down a corridor, and pushes open a door. It's a simple, everyday request. But in this case, it's a victory.
A transgender third-grader in New Hampshire has won the right to be treated as a girl in her school community — including being allowed to use the girls' room. Score one for tolerance, and the increasing strides grown-ups are making in understanding that gender isn't always definitively settled the moment a baby is born, nor is orientation only figured out in adolescence or beyond. Children are a lot more complex than that.
The girl's triumph is a well-earned one. Her family — who have chosen to remain anonymous — told the Nashua Telegraph that after last year's winter break she returned to the second grade fully female-identified. She was dressing as a girl and using a female name. The school initially accepted her as female, but, the parents say, the staff began addressing her as a male and "the child was ultimately separated from her classmates, seated in a single desk in a room of shared tables and was no longer allowed to use the girls' restroom." Isolated and despondent, the girl's "behavioral issues increased" until the family removed her from the school. She finished out the year with tutors.
The child is now at a new school, where the district superintendent Mark Conrad acknowledges, "The issues that public schools must often address mirror the broader issues in our society … It's our policy not to discriminate against any student, and that would include transgender students." The district has agreed to treat the girl "the same as all female students in every aspect," including using her female name in school records, and letting her use the girls' room. Furthermore, her transgender status is considered "confidential medical information" that can only be shared among "appropriate and necessary" staff. It'll be up to the child and her family to decide whether to reveal that she's transgender — as it should be. Kudos to the district, and to the child's parents for putting the needs of the girl first, and for being so encouraging of her right to be herself.
Equal rights are won in ways both large and small. Earlier this year, Baltimore County barred discrimination "on the basis of gender identity and expression and sexual orientation when it comes to housing, employment, public accommodations, and financing." That decision came after Chrissy Lee Polis, a 22-year-old transgender woman, was brutally beaten by two teenagers when she attempted to use a McDonald's bathroom.
The local New Hampshire school community still doesn’t have a formal policy on rights for LGBT students, though Nashua's Ward 4 Selectman Stacie Laughton, the state's first transgender elected official, told the Union Leader, "I think the schools could use some guidance, and I think there should be a policy in place." And Janson Wu, an attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders who represented the family in its discussions with the district, told WBZ NewsRadio 1030 this week, "Children often have difficulty having schools respect them for who they believe they are. If a transgender girl wants to be able to wear feminine clothes to school and be addressed as a girl, oftentimes we see schools feeling a fair amount of discomfort around that." As evidence, look no further than the comments on the story on Café Mom, where posters have dismissed the child's orientation as "mental illness" and said, "My son knew he was Spider-Man when he was 7. Should I have made the school accommodate his desire?" Because, of course, fantasy role-playing and the gender at the core of your being are totally the same thing.
Wu says, "I think that as the environments become more and more welcoming to transgender and gender-variant youth, we’re going to see a lot more students coming out. And that's something that schools and parents will need to be prepared to deal with."
The right to be treated with dignity, the right to move freely through the world, to be seen for who you truly are, is supposed to extend to every person in America. That includes those who still climb on monkey bars and carry Justin Bieber backpacks. And every student deserves a family that supports and advocates for him or her, and a school environment that's safe and sensitive. A child in New Hampshire has that, and because she does, she opens up that possibility for every student — gay, straight and transgender alike – to have it as well. Sometimes you open a door and it leads to a small room with sinks and stalls. Sometimes you open a door, and it leads to acceptance and tolerance and respect.