Five years after it became illegal to discriminate against transgender students, schools are still waiting for guidelines on how to apply the law.

A Maine Human Rights Commission meeting last week was supposed to fill that gap, but it melted down as angry protestors variously called the rules a threat to parental rights, a danger to students or a sign of moral decay.

But a lot of the anger ended up being about bathrooms.

The idea that a transgender student might use the “wrong”one drove a group of activists to repeatedly disrupt the March 1 meeting, causing members to delay adopting recommendations for schools until after a public hearing.

In light of the emotion on both sides of this issue, it probably makes sense to give everyone a chance to express their views.

But a “public hearing” doesn’t just mean screaming. It also requires people to listen.

While advocates for transgender students should respect that some people are having a hard time coming to terms with a notion that seems very new and strange, opponents of the rules should also remember that it is not just another round of the culture wars.

There are children involved here who by law have a right to an education. Schools have an obligation to teach and they need all the help they can get from places like the Human Rights Commission to do it.

For Betsy Parsons, a retired teacher who taught English at Portland and Deering high schools for 30 years, it comes down to one fact: you don’t learn when you are afraid, and students who are lesbian, gay or transgender often don’t feel safe in school.

Constant harassment, sometimes tolerated by adults, drives students away from school and can lead them to make other bad choices about their lives.

Lesbian and gay children report higher than average level of abuse because of their sexual orientation (who they are attracted to).

Transgender students are almost universally bothered as a result of their “gender expression” or whether their identity is different than the one they were born with.

According to “Harsh Reality,” a 2009 national study by Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 90 percent of transgender students say they have heard derogatory remarks, two thirds say they feel physically unsafe at school and half say they have missed school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

Public schools are getting a failing grade when it comes to teaching those kids. If the Maine Human Rights Commission has some ideas about how to make the environment work for those students, the schools are probably ready to hear it.

“It’s our job as educators to create such a school climate that kids can come in and out of those buildings without feelings that will prevent them from learning,” Parsons said.

Which is why the bathroom becomes important.

For a small number of Maine kids, knowing which one to use is not an automatic choice.

Many doctors now view gender identity as continuum and not an either/or proposition. Transgender adults will often say that they knew that they were in the wrong bodies when they were small children, and chafed against adult efforts to classify them in what they felt was the wrong sex.

It is a distinction that is far more complicated and ambiguous than our social norms would suggest. Just look at the difficulties that the International Association of Athletic Federations had with Caster Semenya, a South African female runner whose body naturally produced male levels of the hormone testosterone while she trained for a gold medal 800 meters in last summer’s world championships .

The organization consulted gynecologists, geneticists, endocrinologists and psychologists and could not come up with a single definitive standard for who should qualify to compete as a woman. They are still looking.

Parsons compares sexual identity to the way people are right- or left-handed. There was a time when schools forced left-handed students to write with their right hand, which proved to be an impediment to learning and in some cases psychologically destructive.

Forcing a child into a sexual identity that doesn’t fit has at least as bad a result.

That’s why she asks the people who are scandalized about a “boy” entering a girls’ bathroom to think about it from the student’s perspective.

“The child is identified as a girl, dresses like a girl, acts like a girl. She is not safe in a boys’ bathroom.” Parsons said. “As a public school we understand that the bottom line is that every child should be safe.”

Accommodating that child may not be easy, but it can be done without too much trouble for the rest of the community.

Portland High School built an elevator to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It created an English as a second language program to accommodate a growing immigrant community.

Is it too much to ask that every school have a plan tucked away to designate a bathroom for a student who should be worried about the next math test and not safety?

Let’s hope the everybody remembers it’s the students and not the bathrooms that really matter.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: [email protected]