Schools await ruling as transgender students pose sensitive issues

Christopher Taylor, a transgender male who graduated from Brookwood High in May 2019, stands outside Brookwood High School in Snellville on Nov. 22, 2019. Taylor, who said he experienced bullying, name-calling and fear in school, said he believes it’s important for school officials to have guidelines to follow. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

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Christopher Taylor, a transgender male who graduated from Brookwood High in May 2019, stands outside Brookwood High School in Snellville on Nov. 22, 2019. Taylor, who said he experienced bullying, name-calling and fear in school, said he believes it’s important for school officials to have guidelines to follow. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Graduation day in May was more stressful for Christopher Taylor than many other students because he feared the identity he’d been working toward for most of his life wouldn’t be recognized.

As a transgender male, Taylor had alerted school officials at Brookwood High that he’d legally changed his female name to Christopher in January when he turned 18.

“The school itself was very cooperative. I let them know all along the way what I wanted to do. I had already been using the name Christopher and all but one of my teachers called me by that and used masculine pronouns,” said Taylor. “Once it got to the district level they made me jump through hoops and demanded a court order.” Neither the diploma nor the graduation program had his new name, though “Christopher Taylor” was the name called when he walked across the stage.

Taylor’s diploma experience illustrates one of many issues transgender students face, although most attention has been focused on just one, bathrooms.

» MORE: Schools face questions around gender; here are some definitions

The question of how to treat that small group of students brings culture clashes into the schoolhouse. As they seek what advocates call basic civil rights, others say making special accommodations for transgender students is simply wrong, for moral, religious or even medical reasons. Specific cases have been few, and Georgia school districts deal with them without state guidance, as direction from the federal government has changed.

That’s why school leaders are watching a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. A panel in Atlanta will hear arguments Dec. 5 in the case of a Florida high school student, born female, who had surgery and had the gender on his birth certificate changed to male. School officials barred him from the boys’ restroom, requiring him to use a unisex restroom.

His lawsuit claimed that violated his civil rights and was sex discrimination under Title IX, federal law covering education programs that receive federal dollars. Last year, a court agreed. The school district’s appeal is what judges in Atlanta will consider on Dec. 5.

Taylor, the Gwinnett graduate, didn’t file a lawsuit, but as the former president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, he believes it’s important for school officials to have guidelines to follow.

Gwinnett, the state’s largest district with enrollment over 180,000, allows accommodations for transgender students, but acknowledges this is a sensitive and complex issue.

In Taylor’s case, school staff “worked to support the student and family as they were aware that the student was in the process of a legal name change” but printing deadlines meant the commencement program and diplomas “had gone to print prior to the legal name change,” said Sloan Roach, a Gwinnett County Schools spokeswoman. Taylor was told he could pay $25 to get a new diploma.

The question of which name or pronoun to use, though, is not the issue that has drawn attention in Georgia.

A standing-room-only crowd in Pickens County in October assailed the school superintendent's decision to let a transgender student use the restroom for the gender that student identified with. Superintendent Carlton Wilson had cited the Florida ruling. He got death threats over the decision, which was later put on hold pending the court outcome.

The 11th Circuit Court jurisdiction includes Georgia, so Gwinnett and other school districts are watching what happens.

“Our district contends this issue should be handled at the local level where school leadership can best address the needs of students in accordance with the shared values of order, fairness and respect,” said Roach. “We believe our current practice — which provides students with sex-designated restroom facilities, while offering gender-neutral facilities to any student who does not wish to use the restroom facility designated for his or her biological sex — is reasonable, logical, workable, and in line with the most recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.”

But federal guidance has shifted. The Obama administration told public schools in 2016 they should let students use bathrooms matching their gender identity. Georgia joined 10 other states in a lawsuit against that directive, and the Trump administration rescinded it in 2017.

The state Department of Education and the Georgia High School Association, which sets policies and standards for sports, don’t have any guidelines for school districts to follow. They defer to local school boards on all decisions.

The AJC emailed questions to the 10 largest metro Atlanta school districts about their policies on transgender students, and most did not respond.

Atlanta Public Schools said in a statement that “if the family desires to do so, the school works with the student and family to develop a plan to ensure that they feel supported and safe.” Cherokee County Schools’ written statement said it already includes “accommodations beyond legal requirements” and will “review parent requests for accommodations for their transgender child on a case-by-case basis. Accommodations include using the child’s preferred name and pronouns; and offering the use of single-stall restrooms as an alternative to using the restrooms and locker rooms associated with their birth gender.”

Peggy Mitchell, GHSA associate director, handles Title IX issues but said she gets few, if any, inquiries for direction. “School boards make policies,” she said. “And we’ve never been asked to weigh in on transgender student issues.”

She recalled past instances of students who identified as the opposite sex of their birth sex in cross country meets and a one-act play competition.

“We let the parties involved work it out,” she said. “But we do advise schools to let the opposing schools know of the circumstances in case accommodations such as locker rooms need to be made.”

The Georgia Department of Education doesn’t collect data or estimate the number of transgender students. “Staff at the department have heard from local districts and parents about issues regarding transgender students, but we do not have a mechanism to track the number of times those contacts have taken place,” said DOE spokeswoman Meghan Frick.

Transgender students are small fraction of Georgia’s school population. The Williams Institute, a UCLA law school think tank on gender identity law and public policy, estimated in a 2016 report that 0.75% of Georgia adults are transgender, compared to 0.6% of adults in the U.S. There is no comprehensive estimate of the number of transgender people under 18.

Not everyone agrees that “transgender” is even a valid classification.

“If people want to claim that they are a different sex … from what their DNA identifies them as and their sex organs indicate (it’s called science), they can do that,” said Gary DeMar, a writer, lecturer and former president of American Vision, a Christian nonprofit organization. “But when their personal claims are imposed on other people by the force of law, they are engaged in a form of moral, scientific, and political tyranny.”

He added that “judges who rule that boys who claim to be girls and want to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of girls have lost the ability to make moral distinctions. … While it may be unpopular to say it, the courts no longer acknowledge a transcendent God, the God who created man — male and female — in His image.”

Dr. Quentin Van Meter uses science and medicine to come to a similar conclusion. “Biologically determined sex can’t be changed or manipulated,” he said. “Treating infants, toddlers and children with hormones to impede puberty is tampering with biology.”

A board-certified pediatric endocrinologist affiliated with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, he has his own full-time practice and is an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University and Morehouse schools of medicine. He is also president of the national association American College of Pediatricians.

“There are biologic differences in males and females and cross sex hormones can’t change that,” he said. “There is no surgery that can alter the DNA.”

But the definition of male and female is precisely the question, according to the judge who ruled in the Florida case. “That’s what this case is about,” he wrote. “Everyone agrees that boys should use the boys’ restroom … and that girls should use the girls’ restroom. The parties disagree over whether” the student who sued “is a boy.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group, sees a need for clear policies. “Transgender students and their parents don’t file lawsuits for a political agenda, they’re pushing for a safe environment and guidance from the courts,” he said.

A group of school administrators from across the country filed a brief in the Florida case saying their systems have dealt with transgender issues for years without the negative effects many parents and educators feared. “Our experience has been that the fears of the adults rarely play out. The students are very affirming and respectful of their classmates,” said Judy Chiasson, diversity program coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the country.

Christopher Taylor was nervous about talking to the AJC for this story, but said he hopes to spare others the bullying, name-calling and fear he said he did experience in school.

“Adolescence is hard enough without worrying about which bathroom to use. Like a lot of kids like me, I just held it all day,” he said. To avoid locker room issues, he took PE in summer school. “I came to school dressed for gym and changed and showered at home.”

He’s a student at Georgia State now enjoying living on campus and focusing on his future. “I just want to get to a place where being transgender isn’t on the front of my mind.”

Transgender student climate survey 

  • 46.5 percent say they had been required to use the bathroom of their birth sex.
  • 43.6 percent say they had been required to use the locker room of their birth sex.
  • 42.1 percent say they had been prevented from using their chosen name or pronoun.
  • 25.6 percent say they had been prevented from wearing clothing deemed "inappropriate" based on their birth sex.

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