It’s now been more than a full year since the campaign against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) thrust bathrooms into the political limelight. Since then, North Carolina’s HB2 and nationwide backlash to the Obama administration’s guidance for inclusive facilities have made bathrooms one of the most prominent debates in schools and communities across the country. With the Supreme Court poised to consider a case about whether a high school boy can use the boys’ bathroom, the kids most impacted by these debates are speaking out for themselves.
Pennsylvania’s East Penn School District has become a flashpoint for the debate thanks to ninth grader Sigourney Coyle, who recently told the school board that she’d willingly fail gym class if that’s what it took to avoid using the locker room with girls. “ I am a woman, and I identify as a woman, and you can’t make me change in front of someone who I don’t identify with,” she said. Her mother, Aryn Coyle, has requested a religious exemption for her daughter, but the school has told them there are no such exemptions for participation in phys ed.
Though the Coyles knew of no students in Sigourney’s gym class who would need the protection of the federal guidance, there are other students in the district who took umbrage to her remarks. This week, 12-year-old Ari Bowman took to the same podium in front of the school board to discuss his experiences at school.
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“I enjoy normal things. I play soccer, I like video games — just like anybody else,” he explained. “I change in the boys’ locker room and I’ve seen zero genitalia.” Recounting an experience about the way he was refused access to the bathroom as a kindergartner because of his looks — not his genitalia — Bowman shared that he simply can’t understand why anyone would have any concerns about his locker room usage or anybody else’s.
East Penn School District has been relatively unmoved by Coyle’s protest, promising to continue abiding by the Obama administration guidance to allow boys like Bowman to use the boys’ facilities and girls to use the girls’ facilities.
On the west side of Pennsylvania, however, Pine-Richland School District just took the opposite approach, passing a policy this week that requires bathroom use according to biological sex. Juliet Evancho, 18, is one of several students there who returned to school this week and suddenly didn’t feel safe around her fellow students, experiencing bullying in homeroom and feeling there was nowhere she could go.
She and her mom, Lisa Evancho, spoke with KDKA, and reporter Rick Dayton asked her, “What’s wrong with a unisex bathroom?” She answered quite simply, “Because it marginalizes us. It makes us feel even more separated.”
Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, has similarly not been accommodating. Fourteen-year-old Mason Catrambone really wanted to attend the school where his father went, and he was accepted and even awarded two scholarships, but the school revoked his admission after he objected to having to wear a dress for a uniform. Letting him wear a boy’s uniform would have violated “the school’s Catholic identity,” according to principal Heather Crisci.
On Wednesday, Mason and his parents sat down with Fox 29 to discuss how the uniform requirement was just an irreconcilable dealbreaker. “Even though it does sound so trivial now, it would have meant — and it still means a great deal to me — that every day I would have to get up, put on that uniform, and just not feel me,” he explained. “It would be like putting on a costume every day and not something that I could work well in.”
Despite the school’s condemnation, Mason still is tempted to attend. There has been an outpouring of support from students at the school who respect him and are petitioning to allow him to enroll without these restrictions. It likewise hasn’t affected his faith either. “I still believe that the true teaching of the Catholic Church is love and if God is perfect and He created everyone as they are, then I was created by God, and I believe that love is just the answer.”
Camden Catholic might not be reversing its decision anytime soon, but the power of these kids’ narratives is not to be underestimated. Earlier this year, South Dakota was considering legislation to impose school bathroom restrictions not unlike what North Carolina passed a few months later. Thomas Lewis, a high school senior, was very vocal about how the bill made him “feel like I’m not a human being.” His visibility helped convince Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) to veto the discriminatory measure.
This year was an off year for the biennial Texas legislature, but state lawmakers are already floating bathroom bills they hope to introduce next year. In fact, the likelihood of such legislation already has many in the state dreading an economic backlash like what North Carolina has faced. Families are already rallying to oppose these bills and make sure lawmakers hear their kids’ stories about how not being able to use the bathroom at school will hurt both their education and their mental health.
And with the Supreme Court soon to deliberate this issue, there’s one kid at the center of the storm who’s just trying to get through his senior year. Gavin Grimm, the student who sued Gloucester High School in Virginia for the right to go to the bathroom at school, recently gave some interviews about the “burden” he’s carried, calling his high school experience “ruined” by the discrimination he’s experienced. “I’m a 17-year-old. I’m just a person like anybody else. There’s nothing really extraordinary about me that would really make it ideal for me to be the one that’s doing this.”
His modesty may ironically contradict that very point. Like the other students he’s helped pave the way for, the strength of Grimm’s case is its simplicity. “I’m not unisex. I’m not other. I’m a boy.”
Editor’s Note: This post intentionally avoided using the word “transgender” to highlight the absurdity of questioning whether any kid should be allowed to use the bathroom.