This week’s announcement that Chicago Public Schools will allow students, staff, and parents to use whichever bathroom matches their gender identity was met with cheers from LGBT-advocacy groups. But while similar announcements have drawn the ire of conservative groups, there has been minimal backlash in Chicago, the country’s third-largest school district.
“It’s a great day for gender-diverse students in CPS,” says Vanessa Sheridan, director of transgender programming at the Center on Halsted. “This is an affirmation of their viability as human beings. The tide of public opinion is shifting to support the trans community in general.”
Some individuals were quoted in news accounts opposing or feeling uncomfortable with the CPS policy, but no Chicago-based politician or group has expressed opposition. A CPS spokesman confirmed the district hasn’t received any negative feedback or threats of lawsuits since the announcement.
Meanwhile, just 30 miles northwest of the city, a heated debate kicked off days after a Palatine high school decided to allow a transgender student into the girls locker room late last year; a group of students and parents filed suit this week.
The stark contrast is perhaps unsurprising, considering Chicago’s deep blue hue. In one recent study found that 79 percent of Democrats favor protections and rights for transgender people. Palatine, though also part of Cook County, is represented by Republicans in the state house and senate as well as the U.S. House.
Attitudes toward bathroom rights are more contentious. Only 66 percent of Democrats support gender-neutral restrooms in public facilities (compared to 51 percent of all respondents), while a Reuters poll last month showed that 43 percent of Americans think people should use public restrooms according to biological sex “on their birth certificate,” while 41 percent say people should be able to choose bathrooms based on gender identity.
Chicago isn’t the largest school district to update its policy—Los Angeles and New York public schools have done the same—but it is more specific and includes explicit rights for transgender staff and adult volunteers as well.
“[This] makes the CPS guidelines unique,” says Owen Daniel-McCarter, policy and advocacy director at Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, which was among the LGBT organizations that helped CPS update its policy. “I haven’t seen a lot of guidelines in the U.S. around trans students and staff.” He also cited CPS’ privacy protections, which apply to both students and staff, as a key ingredient. The guidelines, he says, allow students to make requests to have their gender identity affirmed at any age.
“Obviously it’s helpful when people have the support of their parents, but if it’s not possible, it’s great that a student can still be who they are in school, so they can learn,” he says.
It’s a far cry from the days when Myles Alexander Brady, who works at Howard Brown Health, was a CPS student in the 90s. “It was such a challenging time,” he says, “and it affected my schoolwork so much. I was cutting school because I knew gym was coming. So for kids to have the option to be in a safe environment … it’s a new day. A clean slate.”
Brady says a current CPS student who is transgender contacted him this week. “He said, ‘I finally feel I’m gonna be safe in my school. I finally feel school is making space for me.’ It brought him to tears. And that brought me to tears.”
The journey has been long. When the Chicago Gender Society was founded in 1987, it was hard to imagine transgender students enjoying equal access to bathrooms at school, says Jacquiline Perry. “Back then, many of us—most of us—were pretty much closeted. We were fearful of being out. Because once you were found out, your job was in jeopardy, your family situation was in jeopardy. So many people have lost all of that.”
But Perry, who served as the group’s president for five years and has been advocating for transgender rights for more than 20 years, sees a lot of hope in the current climate. “There is so much knowledge coming out, and people are willing to at least look at the information and acknowledge it,” she says.
But acknowledgement remains an obstacle for conservative groups. Suburban-based Illinois Family Institute posted a blog this week decrying the CPS policy. The author, Laurie Higgins, says she does not believe the medical consensus that transgender people are mentally healthy, adding that “physical embodiment” of a sex should dictate bathroom use—though the group has no plans to petition CPS for changes to the policies because “that’s for community members to do,” she says.
But those attitudes are likely aging out, Perry says. Young people are not judgmental when they learn about transgender issues: “You’re not born with hate. You have to be taught hate. Like we’ve seen in North Carolina and Mississippi in recent months.”
As for next steps, Perry says she hopes to see the bathroom equity extended to other public spaces like museums and the CTA. Brady and Daniel-McCarter say gender-neutral bathrooms are the ideal situation, especially for people who are questioning their gender identity or identify outside the gender binary. CPS declined to comment on the possibility of gender-neutral bathrooms, noting that students outside the gender binary can seek an “alternate arrangement” based on their preferences.
LGBT advocates say it’s a matter of time before rights for transgender individuals are considered basic human rights across the country, the same as for people of color or homosexuals. Expanding bathroom access for transgender people will only further the cause by debunking the false claim that bathroom equity is dangerous.
“Districts in Illinois, all the way from Berwyn to Bloomington to Williamsville, have adopted policies to protect trans students,” Daniel-McCarter says. “In places like North Carolina, we can point to CPS and say, trans people have had access to facilities for years and there have been no incidents.”
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