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As the debate over access to bathrooms and locker rooms for transgender people has raged, those on both sides of the issue have made arguments regarding privacy and safety for both cisgender (non-trans) and transgender people in shared intimate spaces. Early this month, the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) weighed in, saying school districts must provide equal locker room access to transgender students.
The OCR's ruling may not quell what has become a heated national exchange on transgender rights, but it at least provides some guidance to schools on how to craft transgender locker room policies for students and staff.
The guidelines come from a case in Illinois filed by a transgender female high school student against her high school and school district. The student identifies as female and is on her high school's girls' sports team, but while the school treated her consistently with her gender identity (identifying her by her female name and with female pronouns, providing her with access to girls' restrooms, allowing her to participate in girls' sports, etc.), it also denied her access to the girls' locker room.
The OCR found the school violated anti-discrimination laws, specifically that "as a result of the District's denial of access to the girls LRs, Student A has not only received an unequal opportunity to benefit from the District's educational program, but also has experienced an ongoing sense of isolation and ostracism throughout her high school enrollment."
Separate Is Not Equal
The school district tried to argue that it made separate accommodations for the student, but the OCR found those provisions inadequate, and ruled they "continued or would continue to exclude [the student] from the girls' locker rooms and set her apart from her female classmates and teammates."
In addition, the ruling addressed the privacy rights of cisgender students, holding that schools could provide necessary privacy curtains:
The District's installation and maintenance of privacy curtains in one locker room go a long distance toward achieving such a nondiscriminatory alternative because providing sufficient privacy curtain access to accommodate any students who wish to be assured of privacy while changing would allow for protection of all students' rights in this context. Those female students wishing to protect their own private bodies from exposure to being observed in a state of undress by other girls in the locker rooms, including transgender girls, could change behind a privacy curtain.
Addressing the privacy and safety concerns of both cis- and transgender students can be a delicate balance, but schools can no longer deal with the issue by banning transgender students from locker rooms.