In a move the school’s principal hopes will set an example for others across the state, a Louisville, Kentucky high school overwhelmingly approved a transgender student nondiscrimination policy that allows students to use the locker rooms and restrooms in accordance with their gender identity.
Thomas Aberli, principal at J.M. Atherton High School, told BuzzFeed the policy, approved earlier this month, comes in response to the needs of his school’s diverse community, which includes transgender students.
“We have a responsibility to provide appropriate accommodations for transgender students,” Aberli said. “This policy is something that really demonstrates our ability to respond to the needs of diverse students. [Atherton] was the best place for something like this to happen.”
On June 5, a decision-making council at the high school approved the policy in an 8-1 vote, ending weeks of debate over the issue following Atherton administrators’ decision to allow a transgender freshman student to use the female restrooms at the school. Aberli said the ensuing debate and discussion over discrimination transgender students face ultimately led to educating himself and the community.
“Gender identity is a relatively new idea — at least in these parts of the woods,” he said. “I knew relatively little than what I know now. And once I was able to define the issue, our obligation as a school was to respond to this issue and ensure we understand what each and every child needs in order to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Aberli said the Atherton High School community, which includes about 1,250 students, showed “overwhelming” support for the policy with only a handful of parents and students who have since continued to voice their concerns.
“I’ve always been proud of Atherton, but I’ve never been prouder,” said Harper Jean Tobin, who graduated from Atherton in 1999 and has gone on to become the director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington D.C.
Tobin, in a letter urging the school’s council to approve the policy earlier this month, said that while she did not come out as a transgender woman until college, she was visibly gender nonconforming at Atherton and was occasionally harassed on the school bus and after school because other students thought she looked too feminine for a boy.
“The school has done the right thing here by making clear that at the end of the day, transgender students just want to be treated the same as everyone else,” Tobin said. “It is clearly the right thing to do, it’s the fair thing to do, it is most consistent with the law and honestly, it just makes sense.”
The loudest opposition came from those outside of the school community, Aberli said, such as a lawyer from a Christian anti-LGBT organization, Alliance Defending Freedom. Opponents say that allowing transgender students to use facilities in line with their gender identity will encroach on other students’ privacy.
Specifically, the Atherton policy states that students, “upon prior approval and parameters set by the administration,” can use the restrooms and locker rooms “that correspond to their gender identity asserted at school” and explains that efforts will be made to arrange accommodations for students who need increased privacy. It also defines key terms like “gender identity,” “gender expression,” and “transgender.”
At the district level, Jefferson County Public Schools has not created similar transgender protections for all of its schools and Aberli said he’s unaware of other schools or districts in the area that have gone as far as Atherton has.
“There are other districts that are looking to implement nondiscrimatnion types of statements within their board policies, but I’m not aware of any other districts that have defined what that means as it relates to school facilities,” he said. “If you’re saying that you recognize gender identity as a real thing and you don’t want people to be discriminated against because of that, you need to understand what that means as it relates to school facilities.”
But from a national advocate’s perspective, Tobin sees students and administrators standing up for transgender protections as a more and more familiar story, “for better or for worse,” especially in light of new guidance the U.S. Department of Education issued in April saying for the first time that transgender students are also protected under Title IX.
“This is an issue in every high school and every school district and if they are not dealing with it now, they will be soon,” she said. “We don’t really have more transgender students than we used to, but we have an environment now in which young people are more able to say who they are and the adults in their lives are more able to hear it, understand it, take it seriously, and support it.”
Creating transgender student protections is not just unique to California, where a state law approved last year ensures transgender students can access school facilities and participate in activities corresponding with their gender identity. Schools in New York, Washington, Kansas City, Mo., and numerous other local school districts have already dealt with this in practice and not necessarily policy, Tobin said.
Aberli said that much of Atherton’s policy was “cut and pasted” from that of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which according to Judy Chiasson of LAUSD, has had transgender inclusive policies for almost 10 years now.
“Our transgender policy solve problems, it doesn’t create them,” Chiasson told BuzzFeed and said she reached out to Aberli when she heard Atherton was considering its own policy. “It means that transgender students are going to be able to come to school and have the same access, dignity, and respect that is afforded to all of our students. This is not just about bathrooms, these policies respect the dignity of our students all the time.”