Transgender Rights vs “Restroom Safety” in Education

Written by: Nancy Duchesneau

Primary Source:  Green & Write March 10, 2017

The Trump administration has reversed transgender protections that allowed individuals in public schools to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity rather than their biological sex. It seems there are several misunderstandings surrounding the issue of transgender experiences. This post will attempt to mediate the disagreement with available evidence.


Misunderstanding 1: The difference between gender identity and biological sex.

An objective and nonpartisan source to understand gender identity and biological sex is the American Psychological Association (APA). APA guidelines define gender identity as “a person’s deeply-felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a person’s primary or secondary sex characteristics.”  Based on this definition, gender identity is not superficially linked to how a person dresses, whether a person wears makeup, or whether a person subscribes to behaviors society deems as “feminine” or “masculine.” It also may or may not correspond to biological sex, which the APA guidelines define as follows: “[the sex] typically assigned at birth (or before, during ultrasound) based on the appearance of external genitalia. When the external genitalia are ambiguous, other indicators (e.g., internal genitalia, chromosomal and hormonal sex) are considered to assign a sex with the aim of assigning a sex that is most likely to be congruent with the child’s gender identity.”

For most people, gender identity corresponds to the biological sex assigned at birth.  These people are categorized as cisgender. For some, however, gender identity does not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth.  These people are categorized under the umbrella term of transgender (although there is a wide range of individuals who may identify otherwise clumped into this categorization). The three main takeaways from this discussion are 1) neither gender identity nor biological sex are purely dichotomous; 2) gender identity may not conform to sex; 3) both are primarily innate.

If this all sounds complex, that’s because it is. For those of us who were taught that boys are boys and girls are girls and that’s the end of it, we were given an incomplete picture.

Misunderstanding 2: Our ability to identify transgender people.

When many people think of a transgender person, they tend to imagine a man dressed as a woman, or something else easily noticeable. However, clothing and appearance alone does not make someone transgender. Instead, it is a deeply-felt and inherent feeling about one’s identity. Some transgender people may choose to undergo hormone therapy or sex changes. Others may not have the resources, or may choose not to do so. When an individual does undergo hormone therapy or a sex change (and even when an individual doesn’t do either), it is not always easy to identify if that person is transgender. Thus, with the protections gone, if there is a local or state requirement for individuals to use the bathroom of their biological sex, it is entirely possible that individuals who look like men will legally be required to use the women’s restroom and vice versa. This situation could become far more uncomfortable for many than allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their gender identity. This could lead to higher discrimination and abuse of transgender individuals.

Misunderstanding 3: The risks of violence from criminals pretending to be transgender.

Some argue that transgender-friendly bathroom policies will allow men to dress as women, enter the women’s bathroom, and then attack the women inside. Others may argue similarly that mischievous students may use the transgender bathroom rights as an excuse to sneak into the bathroom of the opposite sex. Conservatives claim that this is the type of person they want to restrict, and they argue that transgender bathroom policies are a safety risk. However, allowing students to use the restroom of the gender they identify with is not a pass for anyone to use any bathroom without repercussions for poor behavior. If a male student enters the female restroom but does not identify as female, this student is in clear violation of the policy and is endangering students. Furthermore, there is not any evidence that sexual assault predators use this tactic to find potential targets. All this tactic does is link transgender individuals to sexual predators, harming the transgender community in the process.

Not only is there no evidence that transgender individuals (or people acting as them) are violent attackers, but evidence in fact suggests that transgender people are more likely to be attacked themselves in the bathrooms.  One study found that 70% of transgender participants reported experiencing discrimination, physical abuse, or verbal abuse in public restrooms, impacting their lives in detrimental ways (including educational attainment).

Does this mean that there are absolutely zero transgenders who have ever committed crimes, whether in bathrooms or otherwise? No, of course not. However, when it comes to making policy, we must determine who needs protection and how to provide that protection. In the case of transgender use of public restrooms, there is unequivocal evidence to suggest that transgender individuals are far more often the victims that need to be protected, not the perpetrators that need to be restricted.

Misunderstanding 4: Which level of government is best equipped to handle this issue?

Civil rights laws are federal laws for a reason—they apply to the entire nation. Otherwise, states can choose to respect or ignore the civil rights of individuals. There is always tension between whether an issue should be controlled by the federal level, the state level, or the local level. However, in the cases of human rights, the federal level is the best avenue for recourse. A clear indication of this is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Prior to the enactment of this law, discrimination based on these characteristics was legal and occurred to varying degrees in different states. Because the Civil Rights Act was passed at the federal level, all states had to protect individuals from this discrimination, thus ending de jure segregation laws (i.e. Jim Crow laws) at the state level.

Finding a compromise

Policymakers must decide where their values lie. Do they value transgender rights and transgender lives? Or do they value the prevention of nearly non-existent bathroom crimes more?

As politicians continue to battle this decision, one solution that might be able to draw support from all sides is to increase access to all-gender restrooms. Increasing the prevalence of restrooms where any gender is allowed would give the transgender community a clear safe haven. Furthermore, this would have the added benefit of providing families and individuals with disabilities who require aid in restrooms easier and more accessible options for restroom use. Perhaps one part of the answer to this issue is allowing more options in general for the fluidity of biological sex and gender in restrooms without the dichotomous male-female option. After all, the need to use the bathroom is universal.

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Nancy Duchesneau
Prior to joining the Education Policy Ph.D. program, Nancy utilized her B.S. in psychology by working as a private in-home tutor and a sub-contracted tutor in public schools. Currently in her third year, Nancy’s research interests stem from the belief that education must work in tandem with other policy areas, yet must also provide a base level of holistic support to all students. Topics of interest include social-emotional learning, in-school health programs, accountability, and equity.