The battle over bathrooms and gender identity has come to a head in recent weeks, at least in some parts of the country. And Vermont is making an effort to stay ahead of the curve.
In March, the Vermont Agency of Education issued guidelines that recommend that schools allow students to use the locker room and bathroom that corresponds to their chosen gender identity.
The issue came to the forefront in a southern Vermont high school in Chester last week, when a group of students protested that school administrators asked a transgender student to use a gender-neutral bathroom instead of the male bathroom.
Unrelated to the incident, just days later, President Barack Obama’s administration issued guidelines for public schools that require schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom and locker rooms that correspond to their chosen gender.
The federal rules go a step further than Vermont's guidelines in that they require schools to allow transgender students the freedom to choose, and also invoke the sex discrimination law known as Title IX. Therefore the rules carry with them the threat of federal enforcement and the loss of federal education funds.
To learn more about both the state and federal guidelines, VPR spoke with Karen Richards, the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
“I think the issue is really about protecting the rights of the transgender students and ensuring that they are not treated differently because of their transgender status,” says Richards.
Every student's comfort
When asked about students who feel uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with a transgender student, Richards said, “they can certainly use the gender-neutral bathrooms that are available.”
“Most restrooms are single-stall restrooms, so to my mind… it isn't a big deal for people to be in the bathroom," she added.
Richards said that accommodations can also be made in locker rooms for students who would like more privacy.
She says to date, the Vermont Human Rights Commission has not heard complaints about transgender students not having proper access to bathrooms and locker rooms.
The recently-issued Vermont guidance also addresses other issues around properly supporting transgender students, including what do with a student’s records when his or her transgender status may conflict with the gender on their birth certificate.
It also addresses the question, “What you do about pronouns and how you address students and how they want to be addressed?” Richards says, as well as issues of how to “maintain the confidentiality of a student who may, for example, be out with their transgender status at school but may not be out at home with their parents.”
Richards says there is good support for transgender students in Vermont that’s “probably better than many places in the country,” but that statistics show that transgender students are subjected at a much higher level to bullying and harassment than other students.
“So, I don't think that we are without issues here," she says.