High school can be a tough time for most teens. It is often even more traumatic for students struggling with their sexual or gender identity.
The rights of transgender individuals are fast becoming a new legal frontier. The Unit 5 School District, which includes Normal Community High School and Normal West High School, recently amended its policies to permit transgender students to use the restroom and locker room of their choice.
The move follows a high-profile lawsuit involving a transgender female student at a Chicago-area high school who played on a girls' team and wanted to be able to change in the girls' locker room.
The Unit 5 policy only applies to students who have already legally changed their gender on an official document, such as a birth certificate or driver's license, or who have a certified diagnosis of "gender dysphoria." Individuals with gender dysphoria exhibit an extreme discomfort with their gender of birth.
Curt Richardson, the director of Human Resources and attorney for Unit 5 schools, said the rights of transgender students represent a "developing area of the law." He said Unit 5 wanted to be "in the forefront" of addressing the students' concerns.
"We are trying to create an environment where students can be educated without fear of being harassed and bullied and be free to be who they are," Richardson said. "It doesn't mean you have to agree with everything, you can retain your personal beliefs."
"I think it's a great step forward. It shows we're going into the future. We're being more accepting and it's awesome," said Normal Community senior Andrew Schrock.
Schrock said he felt he was meant to be a female from the age of five. "I had always been curious at that age what it would be like to be a girl, and it grew into a deeper feeling, a more rooted feeling. I would always play with my step-sisters' Barbie dolls. I wouldn't play with the boys."
Schrock hasn't yet received a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, so he currently can't use the restroom or locker room of his choice. He says it makes for uncomfortable situations.
"Personally, it's kind of like a violation. So I use the stalls in the locker room to change because it's kind of like I'm nude. It's awkward. I don't like it, but I dealt with in," he said. In the restroom he also uses private stalls rather than the open urinals.
Schrock said he hopes to take steps to obtain a gender dysphoria diagnosis and begin receiving female hormone treatment when he turns 18. He hasn't discussed his sexuality openly with other students, but said he believes many of his classmates think he is gay, which is more commonly accepted in high school circles. He said it is not yet that way for transgender students.
"I would be secluded to myself, I don't think many people would want to talk to me anymore. They probably would just treat me like I'm some weird foreign alien that came from another planet because not a lot of people come out as transgender and are open about it," he said.
The situation for transgender students at private schools can be even more difficult since private and religious schools have more discretion in setting policy than public schools.
Theo is a transgender junior at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington. Theo asked that his last name not be used. He says when he went to his principal to talk about establishing policies related to transgender students, the principal told him, "'Well, I'm glad you came in to talk to me, I feel as if I learned a lot.' But he wasn't able to do anything for me. He talked to the diocese office and they said, absolutely not."
Asked for comment, Central Catholic principal Sean Foster referred questions to Sharon Weiss, schools superintendent for the Diocese of Peoria. Weiss responded in an email, "I do not wish to participate in an interview."
Theo said when performing in the school choir, he is forced to wear a dress against his wishes. He says he was refused entry to a homecoming dance for showing up in a suit and tie.
“I got stopped at the door and the principal and the priest at our school took me into a side hallway and said you have to take off your tie and jacket or else you cannot come in. I was like, this is not okay, this is not fair. I just want to be treated like every other guy at the school. What does a piece of fabric around my neck matter?”
Some of Theo’s friends, like this senior who asked not to be named, left with him in protest.
“I was there homecoming night. I was one of the people who left," the student said. There were a ton of girls who were wearing way too short dresses and all they received were detentions. But Theo had to leave. None of the other girls had to leave but for some reason he had to and I didn’t understand why there was that separation.”
The student said being Theo's friend has taught her valuable lessons. "It opened up my eyes to what loving really is and what true friendship is and looking beyond what things seem at first. I think I've grown a lot from being friends with Theo."
Theo said it's still a struggle to convince teachers and even other students to stop calling him by his given female name.
"It’s really hard to be in class and just trying to learn, and somebody calls out your birth name. And it’s like, oh, that’s not my name. It’s really embarrassing and it makes me feel bad. And even though it’s all the time, it still hurts.”
Theo said loves being a Catholic and is active in his parish, but he is considering attending another school next year. He has this message for the school administration:
“I want them to understand this is not something that is new, this is not some phase or fad that is going on right now. These are my feelings, this is who I am, this is part of me and this is part of the world and this is just how people are and it’s very natural to be this way. There are so many people that are like me that are normal, that are people who just want to live their lives and not be hurt every day.”
Richardson, the Unit 5 attorney, says he’s received a few phone calls from parents and community members concerned about the change in restroom and locker room policy, and whether it would put their children at risk.
“There were some comments made about having a boy trying to get into the girls restroom," Richardson said. "And really what I was trying to say is that if you’ve ever been around trans individuals, the amount of harassment they would receive is just tremendous, and then the correlation to suicide rates among transgender individuals. So you have to ask yourself, why would anyone subject themselves to that kind of harassment just to get in the girl’s restroom?”
“When trans people use a restroom, it’s just like anyone else, they go in, they use it, and they leave," said Cameron Hurley, a 2008 graduate of Normal West High School. Hurley, now a transgender advocate and a co-founder of the Gay-Straight Alliance, spent two years working with Unit 5 officials to raise awareness of transgender issues. He said not allowing trans students to use the restroom of their choice can put them in danger.
“I pass as male," Hurley said, "and if you’re going to force me to use women’s restroom because I haven’t changed my anatomy to your liking, that could be reported as a man in the women’s restroom, because I am a man in the women’s restroom, and that becomes dangerous when police become involved in things like that.”
Illinois State Rep. Tom Morrison of Palatine has introduced a bill that would require students to use only restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their birth gender. Morrison says he wants to protect the privacy rights of all students. But Hurley disagrees.
“When I hear things like this, it’s being introduced by people who have never lived the trans experience or have cared to understand it " Hurley said. "I’m not quite sure where that pushback is coming from because it’s been proven in every other part of this country where bathroom laws have been passed in favor of trans people that there is no harm being done.”
Under Morrison’s proposal, schools would still have to provide transgender students “reasonable accommodations,” such as access to a single occupancy bathroom or a private changing area in locker rooms.
Morrison’s bill stems from a high profile case last year involving Palatine High School in the Chicago suburbs. The U.S. Department of Education found the high school had violated Title IX rules, which prohibits sex-based discrimination. The school had refused to allow a female transgender student to change in an open area of the girls’ locker room, even though the student had been playing on a girls’ athletic team. The high school eventually reached a settlement with the government.
Unit 5 said it currently doesn't have definitive statistics on the number of its transgender students. Many more students self- identify as transgender than have an official designation, Richardson said. He estimated the overall number is small.
School District 87, which includes Bloomington High School, is also taking a look at its policies in light of the Palatine case, according to District Superintendent Barry Reilly.
“We do not have a separate policy that specifically states transgender," Reilly said. "However what we utilize is existing policies that relate to harassment and discrimination being prohibited, as well as bullying. And it’s worked well. The biggest issue is to make sure there is communication going on. We listen to the needs of the kids and the families and we do our best to meet those needs.”
Reilly said he expects case law to emerge that will give school district’s further guidance. But Schrock, the Normal Community High School student, say laws can only change so much.
“God made me who I am, which included being transgender. That is the way my brain was made ... I cannot be something else. I’d be lying to say I’m a man, and I’d be lying to say, ‘hey guys, I don’t feel this way,’ when I clearly have been feeling this way since I was a child.”
Schrock says that kind of acceptance and understanding of the transgender experience can only come from the transformation of hearts.