Gender Neutral Restroom Debate Continues in Nation’s Schools

In less sensitive times, the term “binary” was seldom used outside the high school math classroom. As schools have become enlightened to the notion of nonbinary gender identifications, however, the concept has become a part of a growing dialogue regarding gender neutral restrooms at public schools.

Intersex Awareness Day (Oct. 26), marks another occasion to assess where schools stand (or sit — bah-dum-tss!) on the restroom issue. Essentially, the positions the nation’s schools take mimic the checkered tile floors of many of their restrooms — black and white, which looks grey at a distance.

Enacted in January 2016 was the California Healthy Youth Act, which, among other directives, provides  comprehensive sexual health education and HIV/AIDS prevention education to students, including discussions about and to intersex and transgender students. To clarify, the Intersex Day website defines intersex as “those born with sex characteristics that don’t meet medical and social norms for female or male bodies,” and transgender pertains to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

This state-level awareness of the needs of nonbinary people aligns with the state’s recent passage of a law that allows for a third gender option on state drivers’ licenses and birth certificates, so people can identify as nonbinary or neither conventionally male or female.

Following upon California’s position, the U.S. Department of Education, then serving under President Obama in April 2016, encouraged the nation’s school districts to allow access to restrooms that best suit the gender to which a student identifies. Later, President Trump’s appointee, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, decided against the idea of a national mandate and instead left restroom policy-making at the individual district level. As a consequence, a divisive climate of debate has seeped into what’s intended to be one of the few private places in public school.

Meanwhile, in Reno, Nev., all new elementary and middle schools in the Washoe County School District will be built with gender-neutral bathrooms, according to a local NBC affiliate, where installing gender-neutral bathrooms in middle schools is said to be $500,000. Likewise, some Illinois schools, specifically those in the Evanston/Skokie School District 65, will provide transgender-friendly bathrooms, reported the Daily Northwestern. Ditto New York City Schools. The namesake high school of Detroit Lakes, Minn., will also implement a gender neutral bathroom policy thanks to the efforts of 17-year-old Jayelin Block, reported DL-Online.

Not all local districts are embracing gender neutral restrooms on their campuses. Such is the case in Iowa, for example, where conservative Christian groups have taken umbrage with permitting transgender students to use the bathroom that reflects their stated gender identity. This disconnect is presently an issue at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, where student activist and high school senior Zoey Wagner has been pushing for a more nuanced appreciation of the needs of transgender and nonbinary identifying students.

“Every high school has to have one private bathroom that would work for this,” Wagner told the Des Moines Register. “It might not be as central as Roosevelt’s, but wherever it is, we have to make it open to students who don’t want to use gendered bathrooms.”

Though federal-level cohesion regarding gender neutral restrooms is unlikely in the near term, the debate remains part of a greater national dialogue, even when it’s only being realized between local school districts, students and their respective communities.