Transgender Rights: Coming to a School Near You?

Children are pushing the limits on carving out rights for people who identify more strongly with the opposite sex

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Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images for GLAAD

Coy Mathis, right, onstage at the 24th Annual GLAAD Media Awards on March 16, 2013 in New York City.

Grant High School in Portland, Oregon has just done something to put itself in the forefront of one of the major civil rights issues of our time. It created six unisex bathrooms. The reason: it wanted to accommodate transgender students who do not feel comfortable in the boys’ and girls’ rooms, including 17-year-old Scott Morrison (who was born male but identifies as female), who said he avoided drinking water in school because using the restroom was so stressful.

As gay rights, including same-sex marriage, become increasingly accepted, the civil rights frontline is shifting to transgender people, and increasingly to transgender students. More transgender young people are asking their schools to accommodate their gender identity – and increasingly they have state or local non-discrimination law on their side.

(MOREBathroom Battle: States Grapple With Transgender Rights)

The issue of transgender student rights made national headlines recently with the case of Coy Mathis, a six-year old who was born a boy but identifies as a girl. Her parents filed a discrimination complaint against a Colorado school district that refuses to allow Coy to use the girl’s bathroom. Coy’s age added an extra dimension to the discussion of transgender rights — even some people who support them are not sure if decisions about gender identity should be made so young. But disputes over transgender rights for young people are showing up with increasing frequency.

Connecticut high school senior Calliope Wong entered the fray recently when she protested that Smith College, the prominent Massachusetts all-women’s college, twice returned her application without reading it. Wong, who was born male but identifies as female, submitted a high school transcript and recommendation letters identifying her as female, but she told Reuters that her federal student aide documents list her as male. Wong’s supporters have taken to social media, creating a Facebook group “Trans women belong at Smith College” and a Tumblr page.

Smith College is not discussing Wong’s application directly. But in a page on its website addressing “Gender Identity & Expression” the school says that it “expects that to be eligible for review, a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman.” It says that applications from transgender students are “considered on a case-by-case basis.”

In these disputes, the law is frequently on the student’s side. Grant High School administrators say they wanted to create a safe and comfortable environment for all, but the students also had the backing of Oregon state law, which prohibits discrimination against transgender people. There are now 16 states and 143 cities and counties — including the nation’s five largest cities – that protect transgender people, including minors– from discrimination.

(MORE: A 6-Year-Old Boy Becomes a Girl: Do Schools Need New Rules for Transgender Students?)

In other parts of the country, however, there are signs of a backlash. In Arizona last week, a House committee approved a bill to protect businesses from liability if they prohibit transgender people from using the restroom of the gender they identify with. It could have been worse, though, for transgender Arizonans: the original version of the bill would have made it a crime for transgender people to use the “wrong” bathroom.

The reason for the backlash, however, is that transgender rights are advancing rapidly. The Arizona bill is a response to a February vote by the Phoenix City Council to extend anti-discrimination law to transgender people. In just the last few years, transgender people have won new protections in Nevada, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and cities including Nashville, Tenn., Columbia, S.C., and Kansas City, Mo.

If all of this looks familiar, it is because transgender rights seem to be following the same trajectory as same-sex marriage – from way-out idea to mainstream civil right, and at a similarly brisk pace. As poll after poll have shown, young people today are far more supportive of gay rights than older Americans. We may be seeing, in schools today, the first generation for whom it is simply obvious that transgender people have the right to equal treatment and reasonable accommodation. Unless this trajectory changes dramatically, it is likely that in a few years it will be the people who want to rigidly tie people to the sex they were born into – and who want to check students’ birth certificates at the bathroom door – who will be the societal outliers.

MORE: Transgender People in Sweden No Longer Face Forced Sterilization