In three decades of working on public policy, there were a few rules that every thoughtful person in this work followed. On top of that list was the principle that personal attacks on children are off limits. No matter how fierce the advocacy, you never single out or demean a child in order to advance a particular position. Not any longer, apparently.
A group of parents from suburban High School District 211 recently filed a lawsuit against the district, as well as the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice. The lawsuit challenges a settlement reached between District 211 and the Department of Education following a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois with the department, seeking locker room access for Student A, a transgender girl who attends high school in District 211. The agreement allowed the student to access the locker room appropriate for her gender, rather than continuing to force her to dress separately from her peers. The suit also seeks to reverse the district's policy that allows transgender students to use the bathrooms consistent with their lived gender.
In the written complaint and press statements, lawyers for the parents, and the parents themselves, repeatedly and consistently referred to our client as a boy, using male pronouns. One of the parents even referred to her as a "young man with problems." The complaint further divorces itself from reality by making vague and untrue references to our client, going so far as to suggest that she is threatening or harassing others girls in the locker room or the restroom.
The cruelty of these false and misleading public statements cannot be overstated. Those filing the lawsuit may be pleased with the broad coverage received, but it came at a high price. There is a real person, a young woman who has a family and friends, and who is trying to get an education. In the blink of an eye, she went from an average, normal teenage girl student to someone walking through the halls with a target on her back.
Our client is a girl. Transgender advocates, scientists and medical experts have increasingly helped us to understand that what determines gender is not simply a person's anatomy at birth — but a range of factors, the most important of which is one's gender identity. A transgender girl was always a girl, even before she and her family came to understand and accept it. There is a growing acceptance and recognition of these concepts — and of transgender people — across society, and in education.
More schools — in Illinois and across the country — are adopting policies that allow students who are transgender to use the appropriate locker room and bathroom facilities. A downstate school recently adopted such a policy with the superintendent declaring that "it was the right thing to do." Not everyone yet agrees, but surely as we wrestle and debate these issues, we do not have to single out and abuse a child, simply because some have not accepted transgender people or embraced the emerging medical and scientific understanding.
The lawsuit is not surprising. The parents are represented by the Thomas More Society and the Alliance Defending Freedom. These groups opposed every single step on the road to LGBT equality over the past few years — including the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples and acceptance of loving gay and lesbian couples as foster and adoptive placements for children in state custody. It comes as no surprise that these groups would oppose acceptance of transgender youth. But to target an individual young woman as happened here is utterly indefensible.
In a news conference, a lawyer for the Thomas More Society made it clear that these groups will say anything to justify imposing discriminatory policies on schools. The lawyer told the assembled media that the lawsuit was part of a long history of women fighting for "bodily autonomy." For those of us who know the Thomas More Society, this is rich. This group has fought every effort over many years to limit the ability of women in Illinois to make their own decisions when it comes to reproductive health care. And, the lawyer seems to think that protecting women's autonomy can be achieved by tearing down a woman.
Like most of these groups' past legal efforts, this lawsuit will not reverse the progress toward tolerance and inclusion of our LGBT neighbors. Of that, I am sure. But in the meantime, a young girl has been abused terribly. There should be a cost for such action — at the very least public opprobrium. After all these years, I never thought a direct attack on a child was possible. It is a sad commentary on these litigants. And, it makes me wonder what they will do next.
- Statement re: ACLU action in lawsuit against District 211 regarding transgender student access
- Chicago Tribune: ACLU to intervene in lawsuit over locker room access for transgender student
- Statement re: lawsuit against District 211 regarding transgender student access
- Press Release: Springfield area high school transgender student wins critical access in settlement with school