The Obama administration issued a guidance earlier this month instructing all public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. And America lost its mind. One politician tweeted, "JFK wanted to send a man to the moon. Obama wants to send a man to the women's restroom. We must get our country back on track." Another declared, "We will not give in to President Obama's attacks on our values."
As a teacher at a public school in Washington, DC, this whole scene felt eerily familiar: I had witnessed something very similar play out on a smaller scale almost a year ago when DC Public Schools issued its transgender guidance policy, a directive nearly identical to the Obama administration's guidance. And folks in our school community went crazy.
People just couldn't understand how, as they put it, we could allow boys to share restrooms with girls or vice versa. Others expressed concern for the safety of our female students, thinking that allowing transgender females in the bathroom with them would put them at risk. Many were just outraged at the concept.
The bathroom issue isn't really about bathrooms. It's about understanding and accepting our transgender students as valuable members of our community.
My particular school, Ballou STAY, has the added layer of boasting a student body that ranges in age from 16 to 69. As an alternative school with comprehensive, vocational, and external diploma programs, our community is diverse in age, religious background, education, sexual orientation, and gender identity. With this diversity came a wide range of strong opinions from students and staff alike.
As the LGBTQ liaison for Ballou STAY, I knew it was essential for us to embrace this directive. I'd talked with some of the transgender students in our school, and they spoke to me about their struggles, in particular the harassment they faced presenting as female but having to use the male restroom. They also shared their experiences in having to sneak to use the restroom that matched their gender identity, or being forced to find an administrator to open the single bathroom, and how degraded and excluded they felt.
I went to my administrative staff with a plan: to address this issue head on with professional developments for the staff and town hall–style meetings for the students. We added these meetings to the schedule and began the work of listening to, empathizing with, and educating our community.
The path has not been easy, but we've made significant progress thanks to one essential insight: The bathroom issue isn't really about bathrooms. It's about understanding and accepting our transgender students as valuable members of our community.
How we talked to the faculty
During the first professional development session with the teachers, the room was so quiet I could hear the silent opposition pounding in my ears. I defined common terms used within the LGBTQ community, reviewed the transgender guidance policy, and discussed what its implementation would look like at our school. Everyone listened attentively to my presentation, but no one asked a question or expressed an opinion.
Afterward, through the office grapevine, I discovered that some felt as though they were being forced to go along with a policy that contradicted their personal values. Other staff members were simply uncomfortable with the idea of transgender students sharing bathrooms with other students. One suggested that continuing to offer transgender students the single staff bathroom was the best solution.
But these staff members missed the point: that as school professionals, it is our duty to make sure all students feel safe and accepted in our school. Our personal values must never usurp the right of a student to be treated fairly and equally. And as the justices in Brown v. Board of Education asserted, separate is never equal.
So we tried again, armed this time with specific statements that had been made by staff members in order to address each of them through the lens of a transgender student and how he/she may be made to feel by that statement. For example, we asked them to list some of the emotions they would feel if every time they wanted to use the restroom, they had to find a staff member to open the single stall. "Frustrated," "alienated," and "embarrassed" were some of the responses we discussed.
We also conducted a role-playing exercise where staff members acted out a real-life experience described to me by one of our transgender students in which she was called a litany of humiliating names and threatened when she was forced to use the male restroom. This was an eye-opening exercise, conducted with smaller groups of staff, which allowed for people to feel more comfortable in expressing their feelings as they grappled with their own prejudices.
We came out on the other side, not completely in agreement on the issue itself, but pledging to do our part to make all our students feel safe and welcome.
How we talked to the students
Next, we planned to address the students. But before we could even get to the town hall meetings, there was an incident: A transgender student who had gone into the women's restroom was confronted by a group of angry female students, asking why she was using "their" restroom and demanding that she leave. It was ugly, with heated words and unrestrained emotions, and it pointed to the need to address the student body quickly and decisively.
We began by meeting with the girls involved with this incident. And we listened first. We listened to their concerns, their fears, and their desires. Then we asked them to listen: to the concerns and fears and needs of transgender students who are harassed daily just for being themselves, who are often confronted with violence when walking down the street, and who have experienced real trauma when forced to use the bathroom that matches the gender they were assigned at birth.
What we discovered is that the students were far more receptive to and understanding of each other's feelings once they felt heard and were therefore able to listen to the experiences of their peers.
So we duplicated this process in the student town hall meetings. And during these conversations, something remarkable happened: The students stopped trying to talk over each other to be heard and to be right, and started to begin to empathize with one another.
Our transgender students understood the concerns of their cisgender counterparts because they had heard those concerns all their lives, from their own loved ones. And our cisgender students saw that there was no threat to them or their safety by allowing their fellow students to freely use the restroom corresponding to their gender identity.
This was no magic fix. Some students walked away less upset but still set in their thinking. Others, though, came to a better understanding of their transgender classmates and even became allies and advocates for their fair and equal treatment.
How we looked beyond the bathroom issue and focused on making our community more inclusive overall
That is when I realized that this issue was about more than just bathrooms. These meetings with the staff and students exemplified the need to increase empathy for our transgender students in general. So after our meetings, we set about increasing the visibility of these students in our school and educating our community as a whole on LGBTQ issues.
First, we decided to make our Coming Out Day celebration bigger and better: We dressed in rainbow colors, passed out ribbons, displayed videos, and gave away books addressing the many-faceted lives of LGBTQ students.
We had a huge welcome board in the lobby announcing the day and inviting students to write notes of support and encouragement to each other. We played a specially designed Jeopardy! game that defined terms used within the community and gave away prizes to the winners. We even recruited more than 100 students and staff to take the OUT for Safe Schools pledge to confront intolerance and foster acceptance for all students in our schools, every day.
Next, we invested in growing our Gay-Straight Alliance. We recruited students who were out along with popular, straight students and those who were curious and/or questioning. We granted community service hours for attending club meetings with guest speakers who spoke to their own experiences in advocacy work in the US and abroad.
We involved multiple staff in presenting to and working with club members, so students would see that they had the support of the entire staff. We attended field trips to see the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington and marched proudly in the Capital Pride Parade along with a host of other DC Public Schools students and staff.
Perhaps our most successful push in increasing the visibility of the Gay-Straight Alliance within our school was when we decided to have the club co-sponsor the annual hair and fashion show. Originally designed to showcase the talent of the graduating seniors in our cosmetology and barbering departments, the hair and fashion show has now grown to a full-scale production, headed by the GSA students and me. It gives many students the confidence to work the runway and be themselves, unapologetically fierce and fabulous.
None of these efforts was directly related to the bathroom policy, but all of them were essential in allowing our school to move past the fear and division that were rampant after the policy was enacted. They helped our entire school to come to a better understanding and acceptance of the differences we all have while simultaneously pointing out our similarities: the need to be valued for who we are and treated as such.
Along the way, several more transgender students joined our population who all used the restrooms matching their gender identity, and no one said a word. There were no more protests, no loud or angry confrontations, no silent seething of personal values lost. We simply continued operating as a school with the function of educating and preparing young minds for the future while building a community of caring and responsible adults.
Tina Bradley is a teacher in the Washington, DC, public school system who holds a master's degree in special education. She has 14 years of experience working with students with learning and emotional disabilities. She has been an advocate for students in the LGBTQ community and has served as both the Ballou STAY LGBTQ liaison and the Gay-Straight Alliance adviser for the past two years.