When rights collide: transgender teen barred from locker room over privacy

The Illinois school district maintains that allowing a transgender student to use the girls' locker room would violate the privacy rights of other students. The refusal could cost the district federal funding.

A transgender student, who identifies as female, has voiced frustration after Palatine-based Township High School District 211, Illinois’ largest high school district, denied her plea for full access to the girls’ locker room.

The district has not identified the transgender student, who has spent several years living as a girl, or which of the district’s five high schools that she attends.

The district denied the student’s request citing privacy concerns for the rest of their students. The Department of Justice's Office of Civil Rights already ruled that transgender students should be granted unrestricted locker room access. A violation of this ruling could be deem discriminatory, a decision that threatens withdrawal of federal education funding. This could be a serious consequence for the Palatine school district that received $6 million last year in federal funding. 

“At some point, we have to balance the privacy rights of 12,000 students with other particular, individual needs of another group of students,” district Superintendent Daniel Cates told the Chicago Tribune. “We believe this infringes on the privacy of all the students that we serve.”

But Mr. Cates says the district’s decision does not mean they disapprove of transgender students, but rather it is the US Education Department's Office of Civil Rights being inflexible.

“We fully support our transgender students,” he told the Associated Press. “The district has been sensitive. We developed a number of options. The Office of Civil Rights rejected any option other than unrestricted access. We will not adopt this requirement ... the principles we stand on are firm.”

After the district offered the female student either the male locker room or a private locker room in 2014, the student’s family filed a federal complaint saying the school violated the Title IX gender equality law. 

“We’re talking about somebody who is being denied fair and equal treatment as compared to the other students, only because she is transgender,” John Knight, director of the LGBT and HIV Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told the Associated Press. 

The student’s family said a private locker room is unacceptable because the female student plays sports for the school and she wants to be with her friends. Mr. Knight told the Associated Press that putting the student in a separate room makes her feel stigmatized.

“We are stigmatizable people; we are other; we are ‘those’ people,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington told The Christian Science Monitor in May. “It’s true that every day, all around America, there are tragedies still happening.”

Cates disagrees that District 211’s policy is prejudiced against transgender students, because he says the district has tried to be as responsive as possible. He told the Tribune that the district “lists their self-identified gender and preferred name on school records” as well as “play on the sports team of the gender with which they identify and use the bathrooms of that gender.”

“For all of us, our identity is who we are,” he further explained. “This identity, though their body doesn’t match, their identity is that of the other gender. And we fully, fully support that and acknowledge that.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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