Monday, March 25, 2013
Northeast Portland’s Grant High School Creates Six Unisex Bathroom In Response To Concerns Raised By Transgender Students
In Oregon, Northeast Portland's Grant High School, addressing an issue schools increasingly face across the nation, has created six unisex bathrooms in response to concerns from transgender students uncomfortable with traditional bathrooms. Officials say four student restrooms and two staff restrooms -- all single-stall -- will be open to all students but create another option for the five to 10 transgender students at the high school, Portland Public Schools' largest. The move is a first in the district and relatively uncommon nationwide for K-12 schools, which typically make staff or other small bathrooms available. The Oregonian reports that Kristyn Westphal, the Grant High vice principal who helped lead the initiative, said administrators acted after counselors raised concerns. "We just need to make sure that all students are safe and comfortable here, and that they have their needs met," Westphal said. "If they feel unsafe using the bathroom, that's a problem." Transgender rights has become a more prevalent concern in recent years as such situations become more common. In Colorado, a family is suing a school district for not allowing a transgender elementary-school student who identifies as a female to use the girls bathroom. In Arizona, a bill could require people to use only restrooms designated for the gender on their birth certificates. Michael Silverman, executive director of New York-based Transgender Legal Defense, said his organization is handling "exponentially more" cases since it began eight years ago. "What we are seeing is the beginning of one of America's next big civil rights challenges," Silverman said. "It certainly has been growing, and it will continue to grow in the coming years." Districts say they are becoming more aware of the needs of transgender students like Grant's Scott Morrison. The 17-year-old senior, who was born a female but identifies as a male, said he appreciates the privacy of the new rooms. Two years ago, Morrison would start his day by picking between a "boy outfit" and "girl outfit" he would lay on his bed. Before long, he was only choosing men's clothes -- and eventually decided to stop identifying as a woman. But though Morrison became comfortable with telling friends to call him Scott or use male pronouns, the bathroom was still a place fraught with anxiety and fear. Before long, he stopped drinking water to avoid choosing between using the boys or girls bathrooms. He no longer has that problem, he said. "You don't even have to think about it, and that's great," he said. Within schools, bullying can be particularly prevalent for the transgender population. A recent report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network showed a majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students had been verbally harassed for their sexual orientation. Oregon is relatively ahead of the nation in terms of protecting those who identify as transgender. The state passed the Oregon Equality Act in 2007, and it joins at least 15 other states and Washington, D.C., in offering some legal protection for transgender people. The act, which speaks to gender identification, has helped guide district policies. Earlier this year, Portland Public Schools' general counsel Jollee Patterson sent administrators guidelines about how to deal with transgender issues, including bathrooms. "This (bathroom) issue requires us to consider the need to support our transgender students, while also doing our best to ensure the safety and comfort of all students," she wrote. The district said it was "best practice and desired outcome" for transgender students to use the bathrooms designated for their current gender. But students would also have access to unisex restrooms or health office restrooms if they chose, the letter read. At Grant, where the new bathrooms were first reported in the student-run Grant Magazine, transgender students had been offered keys to a staff bathroom if they expressed concerns. But Westphal and others in a student support team were spurred to provide more accessible options. Officials designated smaller bathrooms throughout the school as "unisex" in February. For restrooms containing two bathroom stalls, officials installed interior locks to prevent multiple students from using them at the same time. The conversion cost less than $500, most coming from changing to interior locks. Sasha Buchert, communications manager of Basic Rights Oregon, called the change a positive step forward. "It seems like a really wonderful partnership between student advocates trying to create a safe space for transgender and nonconforming students and the school system to find a solution that will ensure folks can go to school and focus on learning." Others, while supporting the change, also worry that equating single-stall unisex restrooms with the transgender population can be stigmatizing. Jenn Burleton, the executive director of TransActive, said most transgender students simply want to use the restroom of their identified gender. Transgender Legal Defense's Silverman, whose organization is helping with the Colorado case, said unisex bathrooms are not ideal for every student and shouldn't be a mandate for transgender students -- but they can be a welcome option. Others say it's a good step for students who consider themselves "gender-fluid" or just want more privacy. Morrison said the new bathrooms are the best fit for him right now, as he undergoes hormone therapy. In the girls bathroom, he felt "confronted by gender" as he maneuvered around girls fixing their makeup in front of the mirror. In the boys bathroom, he worried someone would ridicule him or tell him to leave, which happened to him in a public restroom. The setup might not be every transgendered person's preference, but for Morrison, "it's a godsend."