“Which restroom should I use?” Challenges facing transgender children in public schools

Guest post by Andy Run
Unisex

Before enrolling our child in school, my son Desmond (ed note: child’s name has been changed) and I read the student handbook and carefully discussed the school rules. For several days we practiced walking in a straight line, staying on the right side of hallways, and keeping our hands and feet to ourselves. “Internalize your prison!” I instructed him, as he giggled into his hand and stood straighter. After more than a year of home schooling, our seven-year-old needed practice to meet the more rigid expectations of public school.

Homeschooling was not our ideal choice. In 2010, our rental home was foreclosed on — the bank evicted us, I consequently lost my job, and we moved back in with my mother. She generously provided us a rent-free home while we worked to re-establish our lives. In the meantime, we decided that it wasn’t safe for Desmond to attend school. The county we live in is a striking mix of rural and conservative, and my partner, Liam, and I are both visibly queer transgender men. Desmond himself came out as trans in early 2010.

Desmond announced to us that he was a boy in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, as we drove miserably to pick up the final load of our suddenly fallen-apart lives. “I told the kids at school that I’m a boy and they ask too many questions. I don’t want to go to school anymore,” he said, as rain fogged the windshield in rushing sheets. Driving in such weather is never the best time to shit a brick; Liam and I traded queasy glances and waded in.

Many people interpreted Desmond’s identity as a product of my poor parenting. Most parents of trans children receive this treatment — Liam and I doubly so because we could be directly accused of having “given him the gay.” Others simply hoped or assumed that it would pass. I knew differently.

At around 18 months, Desmond told me that he was a boy. Within the following months he changed his name to Dinosaur and insisted that he was not a boy or a girl, but a mean, meat-eating T-rex. This Dinosaur identity lasted until he was about five. For a few months, he seemed comfortable identifying as a girl. Then, suddenly, the rainstorm.

As a trans person myself I felt silly to grieve, but still I felt a sense of loss for the little girl that had roared like a t-rex in sparkly red high heels. Eventually I realized that the little girl that I grieved for probably had never been. Like my own mother before me, I bucked up and accepted my child as he was. And as I had done since that second line on the pee test, I stepped forward to support him. We found a warm, knowledgeable therapist who guided us through the tenuous times to follow.

We lost a lot of friends and family. Slowly our lives were leeched of cousin-friends and sleep-overs, leaving us largely isolated in the beautiful but slightly sinister salt marsh property my mother lives on. Alligators hunted in the creek behind the house; pick up trucks slowed for stares, U-turning for an extra long look. We stayed on her property most of the time, studying local ecology and reading book after book about Desmond’s favorite topic, dogs. Desmond, being an aspiring veterinarian, volunteered with local animal shelters and insisted on caring for local strays.

In fact, it was Desmond’s desire to one day be a vet that inspired him to ask to go back to public school. He feared falling behind on the math he’d one day need to calculate medicine dosages, and he longed to play with kids his age. I warned him what might happen in the local elementary school, and he reminded me that I might be telling a story out of fear, that my story was something that I was afraid of but couldn’t know.

“I did everything right,” Desmond told Liam. “I sat at the lunch table better than anyone else. I was even going to do some math problems until it was time to go home.”

Desmond was able to attend school for one day before the superintendent threatened to call Child Protective Serices. The issue, of course, was not whether Desmond walked on the right side of the hall with his hands in his pockets as we’d practiced, nor how still and quietly he sat at the lunch table, nor how many math equations he did or didn’t do. The issue was where he used the bathroom.

“She is a girl,” the superintendent seethed at me, “and girls will use the girls’ bathroom.”

Desmond’s teacher had explained to us that while the unisex bathroom is usually for staff only, she could give him a pass to use whichever bathroom he feels comfortable using while the other children are in class. However, following this incident with the superintendent, Desmond told us that his teacher had made him use the girls’ bathroom. His teacher called me soon afterwards to explain: “It was the superintendent’s decision. I just pulled Desmond aside and quietly asked him; no one else heard.”

The next morning, I sat awkwardly in an impromptu meeting with the superintendent and the principal, a briefcase full of trans-related literature from Trans Youth Family Allies perched across my lap. I was expecting a dialogue. Words were certainly exchanged — heated ones, framed in rigid lips curled down in disgust — but no discussion was had. The superintendent had made his decision, and I withdrew Desmond from school.

The absurdity of it never fails to strike me — my child can’t attend public school because he has no place to pee? The intent behind forcing a seven-year-old boy into the girls’ restroom can only be to shame, and this shaming carries with it a violent hatred that has broken bones, taken lives. As I have done all year, I am working hard to move my family far from this county, this time making sure that we will never return. In the meantime, I will do for my son what I have always done: step forward to support him, to forge a place in the world for him to grow.

Comments on “Which restroom should I use?” Challenges facing transgender children in public schools

  1. I still wonder why there are boys and girls bathrooms and not just unisex bathrooms. One day we will look back on this like the times when there was a bathroom for whites and blacks

    • I especially wonder this when there are two completely seperate rooms with only one toilet and sink each. WHY does one have to be for women and one for men?

      Otherwise I can see the issue of women being harassed as making a case for “women only” toilets at least. Toilets can be a safe space in that case. For no harassment inside the facilities and as a space to flee into. (Which is more of an issue for adults and older kids.)

      Of course all of that is a consequence of things that are wrong with society. I definitely have no issue with non-segregated (in whatever way) toilets myself as long as I can do “my business” there in peace. And even if we still live in a world where we need female-only toilets (and in that case I’m all for trans-females being included in there) then there could still be at least a no-gender-specified option.

    • Because when females have our pants down around our ankles and are just trying to have a damn pee, we shouldn’t have to wonder why a male has walked into the room.

      This is not about skin color, which actually IS a superficial difference. This is about tab A fitting into slot B when slot B wants nothing to do with tab A. At least if we have true sex segregation in multi-toilet public restrooms, and therefore it’s illegal for someone of the opposite sex to walk in, Tab A doesn’t get the *opportunity* to do something wrong or, if he does, will have the charge of being in the wrong bathroom added to his assault charge or his rape charge. Because they don’t get long enough sentences for the latter two already.

      I should not have to explain this to full-grown adults. And gender and sex not being the same thing, you are actually endangering females with your bathroom insanity. Both the females who think they’re male and have to use the stalls in the men’s room for fear of being outed, and the females in the women’s room already subject to harassment and assault and planted cameras and all the rest of it, regardless of the “identity” of the male perps.

  2. I was horrified recently when my husband told me a story of his days at high school where it was “Strongly suggested” that a gay male student “should” (read had) to use the female bathrooms because he was gay?!!!!

  3. Desmond is a brave kid, and you are a wonderful parent….I hate that this happened to your family. Ignorant people in positions of power frustrate me…

  4. This is heart breaking! The superintendent should be ashamed of himself!
    How lucky Desmond is to have parents like you. You all would be loved and accepted in our community.
    Blessings and best wishes to you and your family.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story. It fills me with rage and chills and tears. I’m so sorry for what you and your child have endured. I hope you do get far from that bullshit county soon.

  6. My wife is mtf. Together, we live as a lesbian couple in our hometown… a small minded, conservative town. I have a 10 year old daughter with my ex and my wife and I have an 8 month old son together (from before hormones rendered her infertile). It’s been tough so far… she’s a very passable woman without any need for much surgery. We are greeted in public as ladies… which I know makes her happy… until people begin to ask whose baby it is. We always awkwardly look at each other, and reply “ours”. We always get a confused look, a long pause, and “oh”. It’s tough enough just being a gay couple… it gets even tougher when we finally get through the breaking the ice stage with a person, and then we happen to encounter someone who isn’t “down so to say” with my wife’s transition… using the wrong pronouns and old name… then the reaction we get is “Adam?”, a long pause and usually not even a second glance as they just walk away. There has even been an awkward bar fight as an old friend who’d been hitting on her all night suddenly realized… her friends of course stepping up to defend, thank goodness.
    I worry what it will be like when when our son gets older… we wonder if he will also be transgender or gay (it oddly enough seems to run in the family… my wife’s grandfather was transgender but never acted on it… and her twin brother is gay)and worry, not because we wouldn’t be supportive or loving… but because we know how difficult it can be. We worry about the community’s reaction to us as we end up being more a part of it… (I want to open a business and when our son’s age requires parent-teacher conferences, chaperoning field trips and having friend’s overnight.)
    We both grew up here in our little town… it has nice family-raising appeal. We both love it. We worry about having to leave it one day… but also wouldn’t mind a more open minded or less conservative community. It sounds as though you live down south… have you considered finding another community? One we consider is the Ann Arbor, MI area. They have a very large gay community and are socially progressive. The University of Michigan has an excellent transgender program there, also… including therapists specializing in transition. It would be a perfect place to start fresh.

    • Ann Arbor is a fantastic idea. I live near there, and it is truly the most liberal city in the United States. Best of luck for you and your family 😀

    • I agree with your suggestion of moving to Ann Arbor, MI. That’s where we live, and the area is very LGBT friendly.

    • We are very much hell-bent on moving. I went through a period of very deep grief about having to leave the South, but I am so, so over it. I’d rather write about its beauty and toughness from the other side of the country, if not another country altogether, and maybe never come back till I’m an old, old man and too curmudgeonly to care.

      That’s a work in progress. Meanwhile, y’all wanna keep in touch? Also, do you know about the listserve on yahoo and the group on facebook for transfamilies?

  7. I’m so sorry that you and your family were the victims of such ignorance and prejudice. I am an art teacher with an academic background in gender studies, and I have presented at both state and national conferences on the topic of transinclusion. One of my greatest professional goals is to make my classroom, and schools in general, safe and supportive spaces for children like your son. Thank you for sharing your story–I will keep talking to other teachers and doing whatever I can to make sure that no other families go through the same thing.

  8. This is a beautifully-written story. Your son is very lucky to have you. I hope you find a community where you and your family can feel safe and secure.

  9. I’m so sorry that your son encountered such hatred and close-mindedness, and wish you the best in finding a safe, open environment without having to deal with that kind of bullshit.

    You sound like amazing parents.

  10. Let me help youwith your “about me” section just a bit:
    TT Jax is a writer, artist, and awesome parent, who patiently shares his honest values and belief in equal treatment with his son as well as the people they encounter.

    Honestly, we have totally made “home is in our hearts” our mantra this year because of unexpected things happening that have moved us away from the home we had before. Know that you are doing a most wonderful thing in life, raising a child, and not only that but you are raising a very gifted and caring child too.
    It will get better. Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. Can I just say how awesome it was of that teacher to give him a choice and support it? I hope that teacher can become an ally and friend for him. She seems to have been compassionate from the start and should be commended. The superintendent and principal are missing a huge opportunity to get to know your child and learn from him (and from his amazing parents) about diversity and the challenges of being transgender.

  12. Thanks for writing this. The school environment can be so incredibly hostile to trans kids. It’s so sad. I work at an amazing camp for transgender youth (www.camparanutiq.org) that is for kids age 8-15. Check it out, it’s a great place for kids who are really isolated to meet others like them.

  13. I live in Ontario Canada and this is an excerpt from our human rights code:
    PART I
    FREEDOM FROM DISCRIMINATION

    Services
    1. Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability.

    I can’t believe more of the states won’t adopt laws like this that (attempt) to make services available to everyone. Our country is far from perfect and you can’t ‘fix’ the attitudes/opinion of everyone, but you can certainly makes laws protecting others from their ignorance.

    • I’m from Ontario and MtF. Although that code exists, note the wording very carefully.

      It says “equal treatment with respect to services without discrimination.” The child was not being discriminated, but body-identified and legally so based on what sex lettering was on the birth certificate among other forms of identification. These things are NOT worded in the charter. The charter cannot be used in a generous spirit of inclusion as long as we continue to differentiate each other through a suffocating binary definition that reduces us to sex organs with a personhood when the opposite is the greater truth.

      Bill C-389 from last year was designed to address these shortcomings and make it clear that forced body-identification is a form of discrimination. The bill died when Harper called for elections. Since then some of the key original support people have retired or died. Sad!

      The United States allows people to change gender markers on their passport with sufficient medical documentation that does NOT require surgery. Canada on the other hand requires surgery. More transfolk choose not to reassign sex organs, so this is very discriminatory. USA:1 Canada:0

      In Canada’s favour, in provinces like Québec, gender confirmation surgery, psychiatric services and hormone replacement therapy are covered through provincial health care. In the states, it’s not. Canada:1 USA:0

      Items in freedom and rights charters, like any other legal document, are used in the wrong spirit these days. Instead of their wording being interpreted generally to include more people, they are used specifically to single out people. Until this interpretive style changes, we’ll need to keep adding greater detail to the Canadian charter to make up for this downward spiral.

      Case in point: if someone stabs an african american 3 times, the assault can be classified as a hate crime even if it’s the assailants FIRST murder. There’s a process that looks at history and patterns of behaviour, but it’s pretty mechanized and fluid. The charter is worded properly for it.

      But stab a transexual white person 3 times, and the assault is very likely NOT to be classified as a hate crime without excessive legal procedures. The charter’s wording doesn’t support it. Transgender people are not clearly identified as a group and therefore get watered-down into a legally weak gender-discrimination category. Gender discrimination laws are very powerless in our society, including Canada. Women get smaller raises, men can get away with all kinds of abusive behaviour, the young promote a rape culture (http://img.skitch.com/20110830-jme8yb39bk7f6ram76sc4xdkbj.jpg) and so on.

      What’s tragic about this reality is that when it comes to murder, when you compare murdered men, women, transmen, transwomen, whoever, transwomen get shot more consecutive times, stabbed more consecutive times, dragged, raped, and a combination of all those more often than another group of people we have a label for. (Discovered this in a documentary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Sexes:_Redefining_He_and_She)

      I dream of the day where our charters mentions in no uncertain terms that we are people first, gender second, and sex third, and that all laws have to focus on rights based in that order (or just focus on the person and drop the other two). North America’s laws and rights are still very anchored in physical reality, meaning the body, and as humanity grows its awareness to connect with the truth that it is MORE than its body, it will have do a reversal on its perception of the world and its people, along with the laws that seek to protect it.

      Right now our governments view its citizens as penises and vaginas, sticking an M or F on birth certificates. But we are people. Our bodies are things we have, not who we are. Humanity has been very slow to know itself and our laws reflect it. If the majority of humanity doesn’t know this, the majority of our schools and its staff won’t know it either.

      Making this worse, doctors are barely being schooled on bio/psych LGBT issues:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110906184551.htm

      Doctors currently play a HUGE social role in telling parents who their children are. It’s not right, but it’s there. They are the most likely to decide what sex lettering goes onto a birth certificate if there’s any ambiguity, and they are the ones who will pressure the parents to choose one surgery over another to force the child’s body in a particular direction if the ambiguity makes their belief in a black/white male/female binary uncomfortable enough. In essence, doctors are at risk of telling you and your child by who they are SUPPOSED to be, long before the child even has a say. Most of us are raised to idolize our doctors, which we mask as well-intending trust, and are at risk of following their mistakes to the child’s suicidal end. And yet, they are receiving LESS education than anybody with a couple free nights, a computer and access to Google? SCARY!

  14. I feel so sad for Desmond. I can’t imagine how it must feel to not be able to go to school because you don’t have the support system that he needs to succeed there.
    As a mom it breaks my heart to think that an adult could be so insensitive to a child’s feelings.

  15. Just wanted you to know I’m sending good thoughts to you all. I hope you’re able to move to a better place soon, and I hope that changes comes quickly to the area you live in now. Love for you all…

  16. I went to school in a climate that was very similar. I don’t think any of my gay friends ever came out before graduation and I’m sure the superintendent would have been the same way. It’s horrible!! But, I’m just curious to know if pulling Desmond out of school is the right decision. He’s always going to face challenges- he’s always going to be transgender and I have a feeling in his lifetime there are always going to be people who think the way the superintendent does… But Desmond sounds like a bright and wonderful child, does he have friends in school? You said that one reason you wanted him in school was social interactions with peers? If he’s accepted by his peers, this might be a great learning opportunity for everyone, some of those children are bound to realize the rules are wrong- which means change. Maybe not right now, with this superintendent… but somewhere sometime one of those children will have a place in their heart for Desmond, and they will stick up for him and maybe for other transgender people.

    That being said, I totally get protecting your child, and I am so thankful for you sharing your story and I hope that your family finds a wonderful place to call home soon! Your son sounds so amazing- he deserves to be in a happy accepting environment even in school!

  17. Playing the Devil’s Advocate:
    While an attempt at shaming your son may have been part of the reasoning behind the insistence that he use the boys bathroom, that was probably not the reason that the principal/superintendent gave, and probably not the reasoning they gave themselves… A few thoughts that might cross someone’s mind when facing the quandry of a biological female (regardless of identity) using the male restroom.

    1. Privacy. This is what restrooms are built for. Li’l Jimmy may have been brought up ina very private household, and be freaked out by a girl seeing his wee-wee. And it could be a nightmare for the principal/superintendent when Billy goes home at night and tells his (Perhaps less than progressive) parents “There was a girl pretending to be a boy who pees with me.” And when Jimmy and Billy and Johnny all tell the same story, these parents are going to come down like a ton of bricks on the whoever is in charge and an easy target. The demands parents will make can be outrageous and very frightening.

    2. The safety of your child may be a consideration as well, believe it or not. Safety can be a concern in different ways.

    a. Personal attacks. When the previously mentioned parents are on the rampage, they could target you And Desmond, putting him at risk.Plus, assuming that Desmond continued to use the boys restroom, as the other kids got older and begin to act on their own feelings or their upbringing, they too may target Desmond. And while this is a risk that any/every child faces, Desmond’s using the male restroom brings those risks into sharp relief. (Pun not intended)

    b. Long Term Considerations – e.g. sex. Because sexuality is so tightly tangled with gender in this counaxtry, these teachers immediately begin to consider the oncoming advent of puberty and sexual maturity in your child and the other children in school. As dreadful as it is to contemplate, there is the fear that using the male restroom will put Desmond at greater risk for sexual violence. Or, on a less scary note,

    c. The fear that D.’s use of the male restroom would create an opportunity for (consenting) sexual behaviour -(Another thing which tends to get administrators and teachers into trouble) which is the other reason that male and female restrooms are separate.
    My heart goes out to all of you. Please, though, despite the reprehensible reaction from the administration, realize that their actions may not have been based exclusively in bigotry or unfairness, but on fears for their careers and the safety of you and your child.

    • I would have loved to have an in-depth discussion about any of those legitimate issues, and was prepared to. However, the teacher, as thoughtful and kind as she was with us initially, took the Southern route and said nice things to our face while going behind our backs to the superintendent. The superintendent himself had no intention of discussing legitimate issues, or of discussing anything at all. Our meeting lasted less than 5 minutes, the same five minutes that it took him to tell me that D is a girl, girls have to use the girls’ bathroom, and that he was going to call CPS.

      The unisex bathroom was never a legitimate option to him; the point was not concern for anyone’s well being (you think those girl’s would be comfortable with a boy– and D would never be mistaken for a girl– in their bathroom?), but to prove the point that D should be forced to present and live as a girl.

      Believe me, as a trans person myself I know a potentially fraught but still mindfully carried conversation from just straight up bigotry. That man spoke to me like I was trash, and I’m pretty sure that as he spoke to me he saw nothing but trash before him. He would not even shake my hand, and when I suggested that we use TYFA as a mediator to keep the conversation civil, he berated me for interrupting him and said that he wouldn’t do anything without a court order.

      I appreciate the devil’s advocacy, and I dearly wish that you were right. The world would be a nicer place for my child and for all of our children, if you were.

      Thank you, also, for the link to the Spiral Scouts! I am doing my best to get D back into school; meanwhile that might be an excellent opportunity for him.

  18. On a totally unrelated note,
    in the interest if peer interaction, consider looking into the Spiral Scouts. A scouting and social organization which is much more open minded about gender than the boy or girl scouts.

  19. I want to say a general thank you to all of you for your words of kindness and support, and to the editors of offbeat mama for allowing me to share our story. It really means a lot to me and to my family to be seen and heard, particularly in an environment invested in pretending we don’t exist. So again, thank you very much.

    • I just wanted to extend some support and solidarity your way. If you ever get the chance, I highly suggest checking out the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. It happens every year in June and features a whole stream dedicated to gender variant kids. You can email me at (ask mods for my address) and I can tell you more about the experiences that my wife and I have had there.

    • I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, but I will say that I support you and your family 100% and if you need to contact me at any time for any reason, feel free to do so at [email protected]. Being queer, I understand the need to know that there are a lot of people out there that care for and support you. I also know how painful it can be knowing that complete strangers are willing to extend you basic human rights and dignities when many of your family and former close friends are not. I wish you and your family nothing but the best, and if there is anything I can do, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  20. It’s incredible that places like that exist where your child can just be threatened by the superintendent like that. I hope you’re able to get out of there okay, D seems like a strong child.

  21. I realize this is easily something you’ve already gone through, but have you looked into home-school co-ops in your area? I know they can be rare, but I was able to find one in rural Colorado. (I didn’t have children at the time, rather, when I was fresh out of college I taught for them as a guest lecturer) The co-op really helped the parents involved to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses to ensure their children had the best curriculum available.

    Another thing you might want to look into are online schooling options. If D is serious about math, he can sign up for specific courses or take integrated general studies (with a lot of project based work) depending on the web-school you find. I have seen these options for as young as 3rd grade. Of course this is really only a good option if you are OK with your kiddo having a lot of computer time.

    Also, if you are looking to move and find an alternative/charter school as part of your research, you might want to ask them if they will take D on as a long distance learner / academic pen pal. That would be a great way to get back into the school setting, by working on external expectations and deadlines.

    I realize that these may seem more suited for an older student, but with more states feeling financial crunch more school systems are investigating and moving toward “cloud hosted classrooms”(and there are plenty of private options as well).

    Until the world catches up I hope you find fruitful alternatives.

  22. My heart breaks to read how unfairly your son has been treated, but at the same time lifted to know that he has parents who love and respect him for who he is. Those school officials have no business being in the education system. Your son’s situation could have been an opportunity to help break down these barriers at school.

    Recently, while shopping for bikes, my niece and her dad were approached by a MtF sales associate. My 5 year old niece immediately recognized that this woman clearly has a very masculine voice, and while she had makeup on and a very feminine hairstyle, her work uniform was decidedly masculine, as was her body language and so my niece was confused and began to ask questions. My brother-in-law stood back and watched as the sales associate sensitively, appropriately and honestly explained her identity to my niece. My niece’s response was “Hmmm…I don’t want to be a boy.” to which the sales associate replied with a smile “it’s not for everyone.” The moral of my anecdote? There are lots of places that have great, diverse, and accepting communities like mine (Vancouver, BC CANADA). There is a place, somewhere in this world, that you will settle where you will be welcome and respected. I pray you find that place for your family soon. Much love.

  23. I literally cried at this story. This topic came up in our house just 4 days ago. My 16 year old has a very, very good friends who is transgendered, male to felamle. She has been banned from using the bathrooms at school and is only allowed to use the restroom in the nurses office. It really pissed me off when I found out, but it was not surprising as my 13 year old son who seems to be unsure of his own sexuality spent the most of second half of the school year suspended because he was called a faggot for the first half of the year, and the second half he fought back.

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