Beyond bathrooms: How Washington pioneered protections for transgender students

Stella Keating, 11, snuggles her beloved collection of stuffed animals in her bedroom. Keating, a transgender girl, feels a particular kinship with the unicorns. “They’re picky. Once they choose something, there’s no going back, which is what I do a lot. They’re completely unique.”
Stella Keating, 11, snuggles her beloved collection of stuffed animals in her bedroom. Keating, a transgender girl, feels a particular kinship with the unicorns. “They’re picky. Once they choose something, there’s no going back, which is what I do a lot. They’re completely unique.”

When the federal government told public schools in May that they had to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms “consistent with their gender identity,” protests broke out across the country.

Nearly half the states, from Alabama to Wyoming, have filed federal lawsuits challenging the measure. Plaintiffs in one case said the new directive could cause “seismic changes in the operations of the nation’s school districts.”

But in many Western Washington school districts, there has been barely a tremor.

That’s because a string of previous state laws and policy directives, coupled with increased advocacy from transgender students and their families, had convinced many Washington school districts of the need for policies protecting transgender kids.

The May guidelines, issued jointly by the federal Education and Justice departments, said federal law prohibits discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including a student’s transgender status.

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The agencies said schools receiving federal money cannot discriminate based on a student’s gender, including transgender status.

The implied threat: violate the guidelines and risk losing federal dollars.

Policy put to the test

The Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor adopted a policy on transgender students in September 2015. That same month, the policy was put to the test.

After an incident involving her daughter and a transgender student in the restroom of a district elementary school, Tina West removed her two children from public school and enrolled them in a private school.

(At the request of school district officials, The News Tribune is not naming the school to protect the privacy of students involved.)

Accounts differ on just what happened in the school restroom.

West said her daughter encountered a transgender student — someone the daughter had known in previous years as a boy, but who now identified as a girl — in the girls room.

The daughter says the transgender student came out of a stall with unzipped and unbuttoned pants. The daughter told her mother that she tried to get the student to zip up, and asked why the student was in the girls restroom. West said the student got upset and walked out.

She said the incident was upsetting to her daughter as well. From her daughter’s perspective, West said, the other student was the one breaking the rules.

“She was confused about why (the student) was mad at her,” West added.

The school district investigated after parents complained to the school principal, said Kathy Weymiller, director of community outreach for the Peninsula School District.

Officials said there was no indecent exposure or sexual intent involved — merely a primary grade student who forgot to zip up after using the restroom, she said.

In elementary schools, Weymiller said, “that happens all the time.”

“It was a teachable moment,” she added.

West said the school failed to teach the transgender student that “if you want to be a girl, you have to act like a girl.”

West said she has a family member who is gay, and that family member has transgender friends. She said she’s not biased against transgender people.

But she said parents should have been informed about the transgender student’s decision to start using the girls restroom facilities. That would have allowed them to educate their children in the way they saw fit, West added.

Weymiller points out that, without permission from the transgender student’s parents, school officials weren’t at liberty to broadcast the child’s decision to the entire school.

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“We are learning as we go,” she said, adding that each child’s situation is handled “on a case-by-case basis.”

West also is concerned about what she sees as inequity: The transgender student gets to choose a restroom, but other students made uncomfortable by that choice are offered the use of a separate restroom.

Weymiller said the goal is to help transgender children blend in, and that most parents with concerns seemed happy knowing their children had the option of using a separate facility.

“We want to make sure that every student in our schools feels safe and comfortable,” Weymiller said.

She said kids sometimes adapt more quickly than adults.

“Kids evolve easily,” Weymiller said. “But it isn’t something that is easy for a lot of our community.”

Washington a national leader

In addition to publishing guidelines for school districts, the federal agencies issued a supplemental document that offers examples of how school districts around the country are supporting transgender students.

The supplemental material refers to Washington state six times and points to a resource guide published by Federal Way Public Schools.

The South King County school district published its guide, “Working with Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Students and Staff” in the 2014-15 school year.

It followed recommendations from a committee that included students, parents, psychologists and educators that met over the course of 18 months.

The school district wants to take an inclusive approach with transgender kids, said Kassie Swenson, director of strategy and system alignment for Federal Way schools.

The goal, she said, is “to provide transgender and gender nonconforming students with an equal opportunity for learning and achievement.”

Among other measures that have helped pave the way for transgender students in Washington schools:

▪ In 2010, the Legislature approved a law prohibiting discrimination in the state’s public schools. The statute includes protection for gender expression or identity.

▪ In 2012, the state superintendent’s office issued guidelines for school districts on implementing protections for transgender students.

▪ The Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs high school sports in the state, has a policy that states students should have the opportunity to participate in sports “in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s records.”

Guidelines from the state superintendent’s office say school districts should allow students to use the restroom or locker room consistent with the gender identity that they assert at school.

They also state that any student — transgender or not — who expresses a need for increased privacy should be provided access to an alternative restroom, such as those found in school health rooms, or an alternative area for changing into and out of gym clothes.

Other provisions in the state superintendent’s guidelines:

▪ Transgender students do not need proof of medical treatment as a prerequisite to obtaining their civil rights at school.

▪ Students should be allowed to dress according to the gender with which they consistently identify and should be addressed by their pronouns of choice

▪  Schools should use the name and gender students identify with on informal school documents, such as student I.D. badges. If a student obtains a legal name change, districts should change a student’s official record.

The Washington State School Directors Association — which represents school board members statewide — developed a model policy for school districts based on the state superintendent’s guidelines.

Over the past several years, school boards around the state, including all 15 Pierce County-based districts, have adopted the association’s policy or similar directives. Adoption is voluntary, and there has been push-back in some communities, including Gig Harbor, Port Angeles and Wenatchee.

Districts can include language about transgender student rights in broader anti-discrimination policies or adopt specific policies pertaining to those students. WSSDA Director Alan Burke says the association doesn’t track how many districts have policies.

The Puyallup School District has had a policy on transgender students since 2014. It incorporates many of the WSSDA and state superintendent suggestions.

Tacoma Public Schools also follows state superintendent guidelines. Tacoma incorporates gender identity and gender expression in its overall policy on nondiscrimination and equity.

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Some say policies invade student privacy

Washington state’s school policies for transgender students might be exemplary in the eyes of the federal government but others see state policy as an intrusion by the few on the rights of the many.

Initiative 1515 was an attempt to amend state anti-discrimination laws and impose new restrictions on transgender students. Initiative backers failed to gather a sufficient number of signatures by the July 8 deadline, so the measure will not appear on the November ballot.

While much of the discussion over the initiative focused on transgender people’s access to restrooms in businesses and public places, the measure also contained language that specifically addressed schools.

Backers said they wanted to protect children from premature exposure to opposite-sex anatomy. The initiative stated that “requiring students to share restrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas with members of the opposite sex will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury.”

“You don’t change an entire school’s operation to deal with one particular case,” said Joseph Backholm, director of the Lynnwood-based Family Policy Institute and a leader of the pro-1515 campaign. “We are talking about a super, super minority of people. It’s not that they don’t have rights. But it’s always a balancing of interests.”

He worries that schools are moving too far into what he calls the “value system instruction business.”

He and others have objected to a set of state health standards adopted this year and slated to take effect in the 2017-18 school year. Opponents say the standards encourage teaching kids as young as kindergarten about gender identity.

State officials emphasize that schools are required to teach only the broad-based standards, not the detailed outcomes presented in conjunction with the standards in a state publication.

They also say the standards, issued in draft form in 2015, were reviewed by thousands of Washington educators, administrators, professionals, parents and students.

“The standards are intentionally worded broadly to allow for local decision-making,” said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state superintendent’s office.

One of the suggested outcomes for kindergarten states: “Understand there are many ways to express gender.” And for third grade: “Understand the importance of treating others with respect regarding gender identity.”

If those ideas are optional, Backholm said, it’s not apparent from reading the standards document.

“The concern is that it is not an attempt to educate but an attempt to indoctrinate,” he said.

Tim Faker, who has grandchildren in Tacoma Public Schools, spoke to the School Board July 14 about the standards. He believes they infringe on family rights.

“What starts out being voluntary doesn’t always stay that way,” he said in an interview. “I don’t believe this has any place in the school system at all.”

Faker wanted to know what portions of the standards document will be used in Tacoma and how parents will be notified about the decision.

Superintendent Carla Santorno said there had been an initial presentation from state officials, but that it will take time before Tacoma educators learn what is mandatory and what is discretionary.

“We are just not there yet,” she said.

Under pressure

The stakes for transgender kids are high, according to health experts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that while sexual minority youths can grow to become resilient adults, they are subject to societal pressures and harassment from others. That puts them at higher risk for depression, suicide, substance abuse and other problems.

While a growing number of transgender kids have parents who support them, parental rejection, stigmatization and ostracism of transgender kids remain common, according to the academy.

Caring adults and safety at school are key factors in helping these students lead happy, productive lives, the academy says.

Aidan Key, the director of a Seattle-based organization called Gender Diversity, is a consultant who has worked with families and educators around the state, including those in the Peninsula School District.

He brings a personal perspective as a transgender man. He said he began his work thinking about what transgender kids would want from the adults in their lives.

“I would want them to believe me, to do it with me,” he said. “It’s a scary journey. Nobody steps into this lightly.”

Key works to educate teachers so that they will know how to respond to children’s questions about transgender classmates.

Younger kids, Key said, “don’t need Trans 101. They need a few sentences: We have a transgender classmate. We are all going to refer to this child by a new name and a new pronoun.”

Key says children can express gender non-conforming behavior by kindergarten or earlier. But he says at that early age, it’s not about sexuality. Gender expression (how a person chooses to express their gender through outward appearance) and gender identity (how a person feels inside) are distinct from sexual orientation (how a person identifies in terms of sexual attraction.)

Key, who’s in his 50s, said there’s a generation gap when it comes to understanding transgender people. People under 30 generally are less worried, he said.

“The reality is that kids often wonder why parents are so distressed,” Key said. “Research shows that kids respond how parents do. If parents are angry and afraid, children will be afraid.”

In his experience, he said, “if kids are uncomfortable (with transgender youths), it goes away within a week.”

Patricia Fawver, a clinical sexologist in Tacoma who works with transgender people of all ages, said children today feel much freer to express their gender identity. Part of that is because information is more available through the Internet.

Another reason Fawver cites: advances in science that have led to a better understanding of fetal development and gender differentiation.

Finally, Fawver added that “the new generations have a regard and respect for individual diversity that previous generations did not.”

“So many parents are loving and supportive, and a lot of times schools are right onboard,” she said. “That gives me a lot of reason for hope.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

By the numbers

One study estimates that 10,500 Washington state youths between the ages of 13 and 19 are transgender.

Statistics from multiple sources show that 4.5 percent of youths identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) in high school. An additional 4.5 percent identify as questioning.

More than 30 percent of LGBTQ youth report at least one suicide attempt within the past year.

Between 20 and 40 percent of LGBTQ youth report having suicidal thoughts.

84 percent of teens who identified openly as LGBTQ in a 2011 study reported verbal harassment.

30 percent reported being punched, kicked or injured.

28 percent dropped out of school because of the harassment.

Sources: Youth Suicide Prevention Program, University of California’s Williams Institute, American Academy of Pediatrics

Gender terms

Terminology is changing. Take the word “queer,” for example. Baby boomers likely remember it as a derogatory term for gay people. But today, the word is being reclaimed by some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people as a self-affirming umbrella term, according to the NLGJA, a network of LGBT journalists. Still, it’s not a word to be used lightly, especially by straight people.

Here is a guide to some terminology, developed by the NLGJA:

cisgender: Refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with the gender and sex assigned at birth. Sometimes shortened to “cis.” Developed to distinguish without assuming that one state is neutral or normal.

gender expression: The appearance, traits and/or mannerisms an individual presents to communicate their gender identity.

gender dysphoria: Medical diagnosis that identifies the unhappiness people experience when they feel their outward appearance of gender does not align with their mental and emotional state.

gender identity: A person’s emotional and psychological sense of having a gender — feeling like a man, woman, both or neither.

gender nonconforming: A gender identity or expression that does not necessarily conform to the traditional view of two genders.

gender transition: The process by which transgender people change their physical, sexual characteristics from those associated with their sex at birth. Occurs over time and can involve telling family, friends and co-workers, changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents, hormone therapy and sometimes, but not always, surgery or other body modifications.

intersex: People born with sex chromosomes, external genitalia or an internal reproductive system that is not considered standard for either males or females.

LGBT/LGBTQ: An abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The Q in LGBTQ can stand for either questioning (still exploring one’s sexuality) or queer.

sex: A combination of biological and physiological characteristics, including chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics, used to classify someone as female or male. Not synonymous with gender.

transgender: Refers to individuals whose gender identity and/or expression may not match their physical sexual characteristics or sex assigned at birth. Use the name and personal pronouns consistent with how the individual lives publicly. Ask which pronouns and terms a person prefers, if possible. “Transgender people,” “transgender man” or “transgender woman” are all correct terminology. “Transgendered” is not. Using transgender as a noun is considered offensive. Trans is acceptable shorthand as an adjective, e.g. a trans woman.

Source: NLGJA

About gender nonconforming and transgender kids

The American Academy of Pediatrics publishes an online guide for parents that talks about gender nonconforming and transgender children, and offers tips for parents. It says it’s not completely understood why some children identify with a gender that’s different than the one they’re assigned at birth. But it says the causes are likely both biological and social. Also from the guide:

▪ Research suggests that children who are persistent, consistent and insistent about their gender identity from early childhood through their early teens are unlikely to change their minds.

▪ Sometimes young children who strongly identify with another gender do change, usually at about age 9 or 10. There’s not enough research to know if this change results from social pressure or if a child was in a temporary phase.

▪ The transition from one gender to another differs from child to child. It can include wearing clothing that matches their identified gender, changing their name or pronouns.

▪ Medical treatment is available to block the signs of puberty and allow more time for the child and family to decide about next steps. The effects of these medications mimic those of a natural hormone and are completely reversible. Later in adolescence, a teen can choose to use medication or hormones to experience puberty that matches their gender identification.

▪ Some transgender adults choose to have surgery, while others do not. If a child took puberty blockers prior to transitioning, some surgery can be avoided.

To learn more visit the academy guide, “Gender Non-Conforming & Transgender Children” online at

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics